- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2002

Spending limits Congress placed on federal highway funding would cost the Washington region $117 million this fiscal year and are likely to delay projects like the Capital Beltway widening and Metrorail extensions.
"You start holding down that federal money and it will affect the capacity projects," said Ron Kirby, transportation director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "Things that were ready to go just get delayed."
The District would lose $13 million in transportation funding, Maryland $42 million and Virginia $62 million under spending caps Congress placed on the highway trust fund, according to a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee report.
The highway trust fund is a special fund set aside by Congress to pay for major transportation projects. Money for the highway trust fund, which reached $18 billion this year, comes from fuel taxes paid by motorists when they put gasoline in their vehicles.
Congress imposed the spending limits under a continuing budget resolution to avoid excessive spending that could lead to federal deficits. The continuing resolution is an interim measure until Congress agrees on a new annual budget, which is expected early next year.
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton questioned the wisdom of the spending caps yesterday during a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments meeting on transportation priorities.
Mrs. Norton, the District's nonvoting Democratic delegate to Congress, is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
"The fact is that the only thing that is fully funded is military construction and defense," Mrs. Norton said. "Everything else is lying over here unfunded. There's no question money is being diverted. Domestic priorities are cut in a most extraordinary fashion."
Other transportation officials say a reshuffling of budget priorities in Congress to put more emphasis on homeland security and the military is likely to lead to additional roadway and public-transit funding shortfalls.
Steve Hansen, spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, agreed the federal transportation budget is a source of funds Congress could divert to other national priorities.
"They may decide to direct money to other areas rather than transportation," Mr. Hansen said.
State transportation leaders are aware their federal funding is in jeopardy, Mrs. Norton said.
"They are afraid to move ahead with projects," she said.
Virginia officials cut their budget for transportation projects by 28 percent, or $2 billion, in June in anticipation of lower federal funding. Although a poor economy was the main reason, costs resulting from the war against terrorism were a factor.
"That did play into it somewhat," said Tamara Neale, Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman.
The upcoming session of Congress will be a test of the extent to which security costs take money away from transportation, Mrs. Norton said.
Congress is scheduled to reauthorize a six-year transportation-funding law called the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, which expires in September.
Provisions include guaranteed minimum funding levels each year and use of the entire highway trust fund to pay for transportation.
Mrs. Norton predicted opposition in Congress to using the entire highway trust fund for transportation. Instead, some of it might get diverted to homeland security. In addition, some members are likely to oppose guaranteed funding levels, she said.
"We may have a major fight on our hands," said Mrs. Norton, who supports guaranteed funding levels and use of the entire highway trust fund for transportation.
Ed Thomas, Metro's assistant general manager, said he expects "funding limitations" for the transit system because of new homeland-security priorities in Congress.
"The federal government has provided about two-thirds of the funding for the Metro system," he said.
The greatest effect would be on Metro's 10-year expansion program, which includes extensions of the Metrorail system and station improvements, Mr. Thomas said.
However, "most of the impact would be on the highway program," he said.


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