March 13, 1998 in Nation/World

Senate Approves Transportation Bill Plan Features New Formula For Distributing $214 Billion For Highways, Mass Transit

David Hess Knight Ridder
 

Spreading money throughout America, the Senate approved a $214 billion transportation bill Thursday that will finance everything from subways and superhighways to ferryboats and covered bridges over the next six years.

The bill, which was passed 96-4, now goes to the House. Highway proponents and balanced-budget hawks remain deadlocked there over a proposal by House Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster, R-Pa., to spend even more than the Senate proposes for transportation projects.

“This is the most significant piece of legislation we will pass this year,” crowed Sen. John Warner, R-Va. “We achieved equity (in revising the way that money is apportioned among the states for highways).”

Warner helped forge a compromise that broke a filibuster over the bill and assured that every state will receive more money for road-building over the next six years than under the existing law.

But still unresolved in both houses is how to pay for the extra spending that is authorized in the two versions of the legislation. Because of spending caps imposed on all domestic spending by the 1997 budget deal between President Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress, higher spending for one program must be offset by cuts in other programs.

Transportation projects are paid for out of the Highway Trust Fund, which is financed by an 18.3-cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax. But the trust fund is considered part of the federal budget, and any excess revenue is used to reduce the deficit. Thus, the more money spent on transportation, the more the budget falls out of balance.

Shuster wants to separate the Highway Trust Fund from the federal budget so that future spending for road-building does not have to be made up elsewhere. But House and Senate budget writers oppose that for fear that highway spending will spiral out of control.

“The success we celebrate today is the first real bipartisan victory of this Senate,” said a beaming Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas. “This bill guarantees that the gasoline tax is spent for the purpose of building roads. It also guarantees that no state will get less than 91 cents for every $1 its citizens contribute to the Highway Trust Fund.”

In fact, it was the 91-cent solution that paved the way for final passage of the Senate bill. Over the years, nearly 30 states’ taxpayers have donated more money to the trust fund than they have gotten back in the form of project money. Some of the “donor” states have gotten back as little as 71 cents for every $1 paid.

Under a compromise crafted by Gramm and Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., the Senate simply enlarged the amount of highway money in the bill so that every state would be assured of getting more money than it would have under the existing distribution formula.

The Senate bill calls for $173 billion in highway spending and $41 billion for mass transit systems over the next six years. The highway spending alone is almost $26 billion more than what was included in the 1997 balanced-budget agreement.

In the House, Shuster and his allies are pushing for a $218 billion bill. Of that sum, $181 billion would be for highways and the rest for mass transit.

As the Senate prepared to vote Thursday, Shuster walked across the Capitol to the Senate floor to confer with Warner and other sponsors. He then emerged and proclaimed that the differences between the House and Senate versions are so small that Congress is virtually certain to enact a finished package in time for states to start letting contracts for the spring building season.

But the Senate also served notice that it might look doubtfully at some $9 billion in “demonstration projects” that Shuster has earmarked in the House bill for particular states. Critics long have regarded such projects as pork-barrel politics that fail to meet strict tests of need.

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1. What the West won This shows proposed federal transportation funding, as approved Thursday by the Senate, and the percentage increase over existing levels for five Western states.

Washington, $2,435,504,000, up 35.8 percent

Idaho, $1,086,496,000, up 65.3 percent

Montana, $1,404,495,000, up 65.3 percent

Oregon, $1,706,178,000, up 52.5 percent

California, $12,122,358,000, up 38 percent

2. Highlights of bill

Associated Press

Major elements in the highway and mass transit spending bill passed by the Senate Thursday:

It provides $171 billion for surface transportation, $1.8 billion for transportation safety programs and $41.3 billion for mass transport programs over a six-year period, a 38 percent increase over the 1991-97 plan.

It authorizes $1.3 billion a year for an environmental program known as the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program, up $370 million.

It provides an average of $632 million a year for transportation enhancement activities such as bicycle paths and historic preservation.

It guarantees that states will get back at least 91 cents for every dollar they pay in gas taxes into the federal highway trust fund.

Other elements in the bill:

4.3 cents of the federal gas tax that had been set aside for reducing he budget deficit would go exclusively to transportation programs in the future.

States that do not enact .08 blood-alcohol-content levels for drunken driving could lose 5 percent of their highway money in fiscal 2002, 10 percent after that.

States that do not ban open alcoholic containers in operating vehicles could lose the same amount of highway money.

By a 58-37 vote, the Senate decided to preserve a Transportation Department program that tries to direct construction contracts to women and minorities.

The Senate defeated, 71-26, an attempt to end the ethanol fuel subsidy program, which goes mainly to corn growers and is aimed at producing a cleaner, more efficient fuel.

Employees could avoid taxes on employer-paid mass transit benefits.

$50 million would be designated over five years to protect and restore 800 covered bridges.

$100 million a year would be set aside for a “reverse commuting” program to help inner-city people commute to jobs in the suburbs.

Incentive grants would be provided to states that increase seat belt usage.

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