A House-Senate committee broke a two-year deadlock over funding for a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge yesterday by approving an additional $600 million, raising the total federal contribution to $1.5 billion and leaving Maryland and Virginia to pick up the balance.
The measure, inserted in a transportation spending bill that still needs approval from the two chambers and the president's signature, could represent the most significant breakthrough in the troubled efforts to replace the 39-year-old span.
Congressional negotiators also agreed to impose a national drunken driving standard for the first time, defining a blood alcohol level of 0.08 as legally drunk, despite furious opposition from the alcohol and restaurant industry and states' rights advocates.
These contentious items were part of a bill to provide $57.9 billion in highway, mass transit and aviation spending in the coming year--a $7.2 billion increase that would shower congressional districts with thousands of public works projects. With members standing to wrest such largess just before Election Day, advocates of the Wilson Bridge funding say they are confident that the bill will pass when it comes up for floor votes as early as today.
"It has taken a very long time to get it to where we are at this moment. So we all rejoice," said Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), who led a bipartisan effort by the region's delegation to win the money. But, he added, "that does it for Uncle Sam on the bridge."
Under the agreement, the money would be allocated only after the states accept a plan for fully financing the bridge, which will be the most expensive transportation project in the region's history. With the new Potomac River crossing estimated to cost $2.2 billion to $2.5 billion, Maryland and Virginia now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being told they may have to spend millions more than they planned. The two states have committed to pay $200 million each but have not agreed how to cover the rest.
The new money, which could be available in the coming year, is also contingent on the states agreeing to maintain the span and on one of them taking title to what is now a federally owned bridge. Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) has said Maryland will do that after the work is done.
"We are extremely grateful to Congress for taking this extraordinarily helpful and vitally necessary step to ensure that the replacement of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge moves forward on time and on budget," Glendening said.
His spokesman, Michael Morrill, said Maryland should be able to work out a financing plan that meets congressional conditions. "Any overruns, we'll have to work out with Virginia," Morrill said.
Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) also praised the new agreement. "Virginia's commuters and businesses that rely on the narrow, aging Wilson Bridge can now expect to see a new bridge built before the old one needs to be closed," he said.
While he did not say he accepted the condition that the states pay for all cost increases, Gilmore repeated his proposal that Virginia cover any overruns on its share of the project, which is substantially smaller than the Maryland portion.
Though Congress has given the green light for dredging and foundation work this fall, the bulk of construction has been held hostage to the dispute over financing. The debate over how to divide the costs between federal and state coffers, which could potentially leave Maryland and Virginia together paying up to $1 billion, reflects the bridge's double duty as a vital link for East Coast commercial traffic and a crucial connection for commuters.
"I am elated that we were able to secure these much-needed funds for the most important transportation project on the Eastern seaboard," Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said at a news conference attended by all four Virginia and Maryland U.S. senators and six House members from the region.
The plan, adopted with the backing of Republican and Democratic leaders, could overcome the objections of many members who fear that the money comes at the expense of transportation projects in their states. This concern over diverting money in the highway trust fund was addressed by tapping the Treasury instead.
"The toughest part was to find a way to get the money from the general fund, as opposed to the trust fund," Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) said yesterday. "I hope tomorrow we can put this to bed once and for all."
The Clinton administration had initially proposed taking the money from the trust fund, but Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater praised the agreement to tap the general Treasury for bridge funding, saying this would be a wise use of the record federal surplus. "If ever there was an environment for it to happen, this is the environment," he said.
Including the 0.08 blood alcohol limit has been a high priority for the administration. The measure would eventually penalize states that refused to adopt the standard with the loss of federal highway funds. But as part of a compromise worked out by House and Senate leaders, the penalty would be phased in, from 2 percent of a state's highway funds in 2004 to 8 percent in 2007.
Proponents say the new standard would reduce the incidence of drunken driving and would save an estimated 500 lives a year. Nineteen states have adopted the 0.08 limit, while other states have imposed a less stringent standard or none at all. Virginia and the District adopted the 0.08 limit; Maryland has a 0.10 standard.
Yesterday's action marked a major victory for Reps. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has pressed for the change for three years.
The Senate initially approved language this year providing even stiffer sanctions and a quicker phase-in of the blood alcohol limits. But much of the House and Senate leadership, urged on by the alcoholic beverage and restaurant industry, opposed the measure, saying it would violate states' rights. Moreover, governors, the National League of Cities, police chiefs and other groups worried about the potential loss of federal highway aid to their states joined in trying to block it.
The deal reached by lawmakers also allows the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to proceed with its proposal to rate vehicles on how likely they are to roll over. At the same time, the National Academy of Sciences would study methods for testing the stability of vehicles.