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Grudgingly, House Accepts $284 Billion Bill

Some Say Spending Package for Local Transportation Projects Is Too Small

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2005; Page A05

Defying a White House veto threat, the House yesterday overwhelmingly approved a $284 billion transportation bill to fund new interstate lanes, parking garages and thousands of other home-state needs that lawmakers refuse to sacrifice, even as they wrestle with a serious red-ink problem.

Smaller than many lawmakers wanted, the measure includes a provision that would allow Congress to reconsider state funding allocations before the legislation expires in 2009. The White House on Wednesday threatened to veto the bill unless that provision is removed from the final version.

The highway bill the House passed 417 to 9 includes $30 million to rebuild the South Capitol Street bridge near the site for the new soccer stadium. (John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)

House Transportation Bill
From Associated Press at 3:36 PM

Highlights of the highway spending bill being considered by the House:

The Transportation Equity Act would provide $284 billion for federal highway, transit and road safety projects for fiscal years 2004 through 2009. This figure is up from $218 billion in the previous six-year period.

If enacted, it would authorize:

-- $225.5 billion for the Federal Highway Administration.

-- $52.3 billion for the Federal Transit Administration.

-- $3.2 billion for the National Traffic and Highway Safety Administration.

-- $2.9 billion for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

-- The bill contains about $10 billion in "earmarks" for 3,700 specific projects requested by individual lawmakers.

Still unresolved:

Under the previous six-year plan, states were guaranteed a return of 90.5 percent on the money they contribute to the Highway Trust Fund through the federal gas tax paid by drivers. "Donor" states that pay more than they get back in federal highway funds are pushing for a higher minimum guarantee.

Nor is the administration pleased with the 4,000-plus "high priority" special projects sought by lawmakers for their districts -- a list that grew by 1,000 projects just hours before the 417 to 9 vote. Two large undertakings would help the District, providing $32 million to rehabilitate and add ramps to the 11th Street Bridge, and $30 million to reconstruct the South Capitol Street/Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. Both projects are located near the expanding Navy Yard neighborhood and the future site of the Nationals baseball stadium.

The bill is significantly more generous than the last transportation authorization measure, a $218 billion package that expired in 2003 but was kept alive through short-term extensions. Until now, the White House and Congress have been unable to agree on new spending levels, with President Bush rejecting the big increases favored by Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate.

They say $284 billion is still not enough. The bill addresses a huge concern for many communities -- chronic traffic woes -- but it is also meant to put people to work. Proponents of increased spending, including House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), say that for every $1 billion spent on road construction, nearly 48,000 jobs are created. "I'm glad this day has finally come," Hastert said.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is scheduled to take up a transportation bill next week. Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) has called $284 billion "totally inadequate" and vowed to exceed it.

"The president will be receptive to a higher number" provided the additional sum is paid for, Inhofe said. He said he does not favor the House's approach of reopening the bill and seeking more money if Congress fails by 2009 to change how federal funds are distributed among states. "You give up your certainty," Inhofe said.

Many of the "donor states," which pay more in federal gasoline taxes than they get back in federal highway assistance, are clamoring for a new formula that would be more advantageous to them.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young's home state of Alaska is one of the big winners in the House bill, scooping up scores of special projects or "earmarks," including $125 million for planning, design, and construction of a bridge linking Gravina Island and the community of Ketchikan, $25 million for Port of Anchorage improvements, and $10 million for "congestion relief" in Anchorage.

"It is much-needed legislation that will move our country toward a stronger economy," Young said. He left his stamp on the bill in other ways, naming the legislation after his wife, Lu, by calling it the Transportation Equity Act-Legacy for Users, or TEA-LU.

Watchdog groups complained that the bill is laced with wasteful pork barrel spending, despite record budget deficits. "The transportation bill that was approved today is leading us down the road to fiscal ruin," said Keith Ashdown, policy vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense. Ashdown said the bill's 4,128 earmarks are "concentrated in the hands of a few powerful members of Congress," including the nearly $722 million in Alaskan projects that Young added, Ashdown said.

The bill reaches well beyond the usual highway extensions, pothole repairs, bike paths and new bus stops. For instance, New York City's Harlem Hospital Center would receive $10 million for a new parking facility. "You have to have a car to get into the garage," joked Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), who secured the funds and lives across the street from the hospital.

Another beneficiary is the National Packard Museum in Warren, Ohio, where the first Packard automobile was produced in 1899. The bill would provide $3 million to help with renovations. "It's really big, and drives a lot of traffic into the city," says Ryan P. Keating, a spokesman for Rep. Timothy J. Ryan (D-Ohio), who represents Warren and secured $16 million for that and other projects in his district. Other transportation-related museums that benefit under the bill include the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, N.Y., slated to receive $400,000, and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., which would receive $1.5 million.

Three children's museums would benefit, including the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, which bills itself as the largest such museum in the world. The museum is due to receive $14 million to "relocate and improve intermodal transportation." The museum filled out a standard House form to request the money, submitting it through the office of Rep. Julia Carson (D-Ind.). Jennifer Tate, a museum spokeswoman, said the money will probably help to fund a three-story, 900-car garage, with a pedestrian bridge to the museum.

The bill also includes $2 million to construct a garage on the campus of Lipscomb University, a private Christian liberal arts university in Nashville. Kim Chaudoin, a school spokeswoman, said the garage will be located near an academic building for which ground was broken last week.

An additional $4 million will finance a graffiti-elimination program in Queens and Brooklyn, and $500,000 will pay for sidewalks and landscaping in Glennville, Ga.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company