Legislation that would boost federal spending on the nation’s highways and bridges by more than 50 percent over the next six years was approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Monday.
The House plan would spread a total of $218 billion among the 50 states between now and 2003. Some $9.5 billion of the money would go for pet highway projects already earmarked by members of Congress in negotiations with the House transportation committee.
Thanks to those pet projects and generous provisions for state highway funding aid, the bill is expected to pass the House easily next week.
Transportation committee chairman Bud Shuster, R-Pa., is so confident that he said Monday that he would be “disappointed” if the legislation got fewer than 400 votes. There are 435 seats in Congress, although there are three member vacancies.
Shuster prevailed in a budget battle with deficit hawks who did not want to permit the bill to proceed because its spending exceeded levels called for in last year’s historic balanced budget agreement. However, the House leadership agreed to find $26 billion in cuts in other parts of the budget and allowed the transportation bill to move along.
Congress is racing to pass new transportation spending legislation before May 1, when current legislation guiding federal transportation aid expires.
Despite widespread enthusiasm, there likely will be a showdown with the Senate, which has shaped transportation legislation that proposes spending $4 billion less overall and differs with the House bill significantly in other ways.
The House bill would remove the federal highway trust fund, where the 18.4 cents a gallon federal gasoline tax is accumulated, from the overall federal budget in the federal fiscal year beginning this October. That would mean money in the fund could be spent only on transportation projects.
The House bill also changes the formula under which highway money is distributed to the states, guaranteeing states 95 percent of the money they collect in federal fuel taxes. The Senate bill sets a 90 percent rate of return.
The House bill also includes an extra $9 billion in spending on mass transit projects. The Senate bill does not list the special highway projects described in the House legislation.
Shuster was defensive Monday about the practice of including the funding in the bill.
“We have been very careful and cautious to make sure these are worthy projects,” Shuster said. “Our highways are being used more and more and are crumbling, and we need to repair them.”
Unlike much legislation that divides Democrats and Republicans, there is bipartisan enthusiasm for the transportation bill, known as the Building Efficient Surface Transportation and Equity Act of 1998. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on the House transportation committee, effusively praised the bill Monday.
“It is good for America. It is good for the future of this country,” he said.