WASHINGTON – After years of delay, the House was forced to wait another day to pass a $286.4 billion highway and mass transit bill that would send lawmakers home for their summer vacations bearing big gifts of roads, bridges and jobs.
A scheduled House late Thursday on the 1,600-page package was put off until Friday when several House members strenuously objected to a provision placed in the bill by the Senate that would reopen a closed runway at Malmstrom Air Force Base (search) in Montana.
Rep. Christopher Shays (search), R-Conn., whose own state could lose a submarine base at Groton under the latest round of proposed base closings, said it was "absolutely outrageous" that the highway bill was being used to reverse a previous decision on closing a military facility.
House leaders decided to reconvene Friday morning after trying to resolve the controversy. The Senate is also scheduled to take up the six-year highway bill on Friday before Congress recesses for its six-week summer break.
With the president's expected signature, passage of the transportation act would end an almost two-year impasse in which Congress and the White House battled over the proper spending levels and states were at odds over how best to divide up the billions in federal highway money.
The bill would direct federal funds to thousands of projects requested by members, from $200 million for a bridge in Alaska named for the chairman of the House Transportation Committee to $2 million to pave roads on a South Dakota Indian reservation.
The watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense (search) said the bill contained 5,696 such "earmarks," not counting bus projects, worth approximately $21 billion.
The nation has been without a new law since September 2003, when the 1998-2003 act, funded at $218 billion, expired. Since then, Congress has had to pass 11 temporary extensions to keep money flowing to the states for construction projects.
That delay has disrupted schedules for new projects and prevented the hiring of tens of thousands of construction workers.
The final funding level for the 2004-09 period is nearly $100 billion less than lawmakers and transportation officials have said is necessary to make real improvements in the nation's deteriorating, congested and unsafe roads and bridges.
But the White House has insisted that Congress show fiscal discipline, saying it cannot go along with unbridled spending at a time of large budget deficits and rising military costs.
Lawmakers said they were generally satisfied. The bill, said Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., who heads the minority on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, "will make our nation's roads and bridges safer and less congested and create thousands of jobs from coast to coast."
"It's not going to solve the nation's congestion crisis, but it is a step in the right direction," said Ed Mortimer, director of transportation infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Even before the final vote, lawmakers were boasting of projects they had won for their states or districts.
"I'm pleased to report that help is on the way for Colorado drivers," said Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., saying the state would receive a 47 percent increase in federal highway funding, the highest increase of any state, to $2.5 billion.
South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson and his Republican colleague, Sen. John Thune, said they "went in swinging for South Dakota and this transportation bill is truly a grand slam for our state." Johnson said that between the two of them they secured $225 million in "earmarks," or specific projects, for the state.
North Dakota received $70 million to stabilize and raise roads around Devils Lake, which is currently flooding, while Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., the head of the transportation panel in the Environment and Public Works Committee, secured $50 million for a new bridge crossing the Missouri River near Kansas City.
The bill also designates hundreds of new bus terminals, railways, bike trails, pedestrian walkways and parking lots. Mass transit receives more than 18 percent of the money, more than $50 billion, while $6 billion is set aside for transportation safety programs.
The bill has several new tax provisions, raising $495 million over 10 years by funneling some taxes on kerosene used as diesel into the Highway Trust Fund, while exempting limousines over 6,000 pounds from the gas guzzler tax, at a cost of $46 million over 10 years. It also caps the 10 percent excise tax on fishing rods at $10.
The legislation guarantees that by 2008 every state will get back at least 92 percent of what it contributes through federal gas taxes to the Highway Trust Fund. The current minimum rate of return in 90.5 percent, and the demand of "donor" states for a more equitable division of the federal highway money has been one of the major sticking points in coming up with a compromise bill.