- The Washington Times - Friday, April 2, 2004

The House approved a $275 billion highway and transit spending bill yesterday despite a threat from President Bush to veto the legislation because of the high costs involved.

The nation’s largest public works bill, which was approved 357-65, now goes to a House-Senate conference committee to seek a compromise proposal that is nearly certain to become part of election-year campaign debates.

“We’ve done everything we could possibly do,” said House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, Alaska Republican.

Although he helped write the legislation for the $275 billion, six-year package, the original version of the measure was about $100 billion higher.

The revised bill “does not completely do the job, but it is the nearest thing we can do at this time,” Mr. Young said.

The bill would provide $217.4 billion for highways, $51.5 billion for mass transit and about $6 billion for safety and research programs from 2004 through 2009.

The Senate passed a $318 billion version of the highway and transit bill in February.

Its supporters say it could create as many as 1.7 million jobs at a time when about 8.4 million Americans are unemployed.

Among local projects that would get funding is the Dulles corridor transit project to build a passenger rail or bus line from Tysons Corner to Washington Dulles International Airport. The project would cost up to $3.3 billion.

In addition, Metro would get money for additional rail cars to relieve overcrowding.

“By 2007, if not sooner, the overcrowding conditions on Metro are going to turn people away,” Metro spokesman Ray Feldmann said. “We have a lot riding on the outcome of this bill. It’s going to impact our riders in a big way, very soon.”

The White House opposes both the House and Senate bills.

Mr. Bush warned this week the legislation could produce the first veto of his presidency. The administration has recommended spending no more than $256 billion because of the need to reduce the federal deficit.

The previous six-year highway and transit bill, which expired in September, provided $218 billion.

In approving the popular measure, lawmakers from both parties showed impatience at spending restraints the administration wants to impose.

“Everyone would like to have more money, but because of the administration we don’t have more money,” said Rep. William O. Lipinski of Illinois, a top Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Democrats attempted to boost spending to the Senate’s $318 billion level, but Republicans, citing tax increases needed to pay for the bigger bill, joined to stop them.

Many strong Republican allies, including business and construction groups, have been saying the Senate bill was at the lower end of what is needed to improve the nation’s deteriorating transportation infrastructure and create jobs.

A vocal minority said the bill was wasteful and would contribute to the federal deficit.

Some members of Congress complained that the formula for partitioning the money among the states was unfair.

“It’s unfortunate that we have a piece of legislation here that seems to divide the states,” said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, Florida Republican, whose state complained about contributing more to federal transportation projects than it gets in return. Only three of Florida’s 25 congressmen voted for the bill.

Under current law, states are to get back at least 90.5 cents for every dollar they pay into the highway trust fund through the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. The Senate bill would raise that minimum guarantee to 95 cents by 2009.

The House bill would keep the return rate at 90.5 percent initially but would reopen the legislation in two years if the 95-cent guarantee is not in place by then. The administration strongly opposes reopening the legislation as a device to increase spending.

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