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Highway bill has billions for region

Matthew Daly Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Northwest House members Thursday hailed a mammoth highway and transit bill that would bring in more than $6 billion for highway projects in Washington and Oregon alone.

The highway bill “will be the signature domestic accomplishment of the 109th Congress,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who helped shepherd the measure as ranking Democrat on the highway subcommittee of the House transportation panel. The bill includes nearly $2.6 billion for Oregon highway projects and $3.7 billion for Washington state.

“Through this bill, the investment of tax dollars paid by the American people at the pump will lead to job creation, economic growth and improved productivity, without adding to the national debt,” DeFazio said.

For every billion dollars spent on mitigating congestion, repairing cracked bridges or resurfacing highways, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that 47,000 jobs are created and $6.1 billion in economic activity is generated nationwide.

“These are not just construction jobs, but they are contracting jobs, small-business … jobs in the communities where the projects take place,” DeFazio said, calling the bill “an investment in America that will pay dividends for years to come.”

Other Northwest lawmakers also praised the bill.

“This bill responds to the unique transportation needs of the region,” said Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash.

Reichert, a freshman who serves on the transportation panel, said he lobbied hard for all of the projects in his suburban Seattle district, including two that were added in recent weeks: The Interstate 5 interchange in Kent, Wash., and a new highway planned in Pierce County near the Fort Lewis Army Base.

“This bill has an incredible, positive impact for our district,” said Reichert.

The bill, approved 417-9, would guarantee $225.5 billion over a six-year period to the Federal Highway Administration, $52.3 billion to the Federal Transit Administration and more than $6 billion for safety programs.

The White House called the bill “long overdue” but warned, as the measure moved to the Senate, that it would be subject to a presidential veto if it rose above the $284 billion the House approved.

The bill includes $11 million for preliminary engineering for a new Columbia River crossing for transit, freight and vehicles to ease congestion on Interstate 5, and $12 million for the Port of Portland to add rail capacity and provide congestion relief in North Portland.

At the request of Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., the bill would double spending on the nation’s ferry system, authorizing $430 million for a six-year period through 2009.

“This bill will improve safety and relieve congestion in Snohomish County communities,” said Larsen, a member of the transportation panel.

Congress has been trying to produce a new highway bill since the last six-year plan, funded at $218 billion, expired in September 2003. But the legislation got hung up last year when lawmakers couldn’t work out a formula for dividing the money among the states and the White House issued a veto threat over spending levels it said would deepen the federal deficit.

The House bill would increase the pot of money to be divided among the states by including in the calculations the special projects requested by members. Oregon has a total of $282.3 million in special projects, while Washington has $266.4 million.

Those projects, known as “earmarks,” may prove less popular as the bill moves to the Senate. Senators are generally less sympathetic to carving out local projects for specific districts, which fiscal conservatives consider the worst example of pork-barrel spending.

This time the House included approximately 4,100 projects, a record, worth an estimated $12.4 billion, according to the fiscal watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

“The transportation bill is a pork-laden budget buster that needs a serious overhaul,” the group said in a statement. “Instead of cutting spending in a fiscally responsible manner, lawmakers are committing highway robbery on taxpayers to pay for parochial pork.”

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