The heads of 211 corporations have written President Bush urging him to accept a higher level of spending for future highway programs, saying a robust highway bill was critical to their own, and the nation's, economic growth.

"As business leaders, we believe the U.S. is facing a transportation infrastructure deficit that can no longer be ignored," the CEOs and presidents, heading companies with 307,000 employees, wrote Bush in backing a Senate-passed bill that would spend $318 billion over the next six years for highway and mass transit projects.

The letter, sent last week, came as House and Senate negotiators planned their first public meeting Wednesday in hopes of breaking a yearlong impasse over the size and scope of the next highway bill (search).

The last six-year program, funded at $218 billion, expired last September, and has had to be provisionally extended twice because the White House and Congress can't agree on a bottom-line number.

The White House has warned that Bush will levy the first veto (search) of his presidency if Congress gives him either the Senate bill or the House-passed bill, estimated to cost about $284 billion.

The administration, saying the growing federal deficit (search) requires greater fiscal discipline, has set a ceiling of $256 billion, but suggested it could accept $275 billion as long as the bill does not raise taxes or add to the deficit.

The CEOs and presidents said $318 billion should be the minimum acceptable, saying it would "create over 2 million American job opportunities and help address the growing deterioration of the nation's highway, bridge and transit infrastructure facilities."

They noted that traffic crashes cost society $230 billion a year and poor roadway conditions are a factor in one-third of those accidents.

The letter was coordinated by Americans for Transportation Mobility (search), a business and labor coalition affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Ed Mortimer, executive director of the coalition, said that while they have written other letters urging action on the bill, this was the first time company heads were putting their names on a statement.

"A lot of the time CEOs like to hide behind trade associations," he said. "But they wanted to express themselves." Mortimer acknowledged that getting a deal will not be easy. "Everybody seems to be in a fairly intractable position," he said.