House Panel Revives Highway Bill

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A House committee on Wednesday cleared the road for action on a six-year, $284 billion highway and mass transit bill (search), a major jobs and infrastructure initiative that stalled last year over a money dispute between the White House and Congress.

This year, with the White House on board and the threat of a presidential veto removed, chances for passage are improved, although some in the Senate are still pressing for more money and there's still an issue over how to most fairly distribute the funds among the states.

The House Transportation Committee (search) voted by voice to renew and significantly expand the highway spending program that has been running on temporary extensions since the last six-year plan, funded at $218 billion, expired in September, 2003.

The full House is expected to vote next week on what a senior Democrat on the committee, Peter DeFazio of Oregon, called "perhaps the most important piece of legislation in this Congress."

The legislation also contains 3,315 projects requested by House members for their districts and criticized by government watchdog groups as pork barrel spending (search). They range from $15 million for an access road in Juneau, Alaska, the home state of committee chairman Don Young, to $200,000 for a bicycle trail in Eagleville, Tenn.

Young said it was essential that Congress pass a bill before the latest extension expires on May 31. "The American people deserve solutions to the problems of congestion, crumbling roads and delayed shipments of freight," he said.

Business groups, transportation and construction companies and highway safety advocates have lobbied hard for the new bill, citing the increased congestion and poor conditions of the nation's roads. "There is great hunger around the country for better, safer roads, and now we are one step closer," said Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America (search), after the committee vote.

Last year the White House said the spending proposed by Congress was excessive and threatened to veto any bill that added to the federal deficit.

With White House approval of the $284 billion level, the biggest remaining issue is how to divide money from the highway trust fund, the revenue derived from the federal gas tax (search) that is used for highway construction. Under the old plan states were guaranteed at least 90.5 cents for every dollar they contributed to the fund, but states that pay more than they get back have been demanding a higher return on their payments.

Among other issues on the table as the bill moves toward passage will be provisions to shorten the time needed to get environmental approval for construction projects and federal recognition of tolling as a way to reduce congestion on highways.

The Senate last year approved a $318 billion bill and strong sentiment remains for a more robust funding level. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is to propose the $284 billion level when it votes on the legislation in about two weeks, but it's likely that senators will offer amendments either in committee or on the Senate floor to raise that.

Sens. Jim Talent, R-Mo., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., are promoting a $30 billion one-time bonding program that would raise overall spending to a level close to what the Senate approved last year.