Senate Passes $295 Billion Transportation Measure

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Senate easily approved $295 billion in new transportation money, more than President Bush wanted to spend but the bare minimum that lawmakers say is needed to address the country's ailing road and rail system.

The legislation, which passed 89 to 11, heads to a negotiating conference with the House. Despite Congress's relish for building highways, bike paths and ferry terminals, lawmakers have been unable to agree on particulars since the most recent transportation act expired on Sept. 30, 2003.

Two overarching problems confront House and Senate negotiators. One, the White House has threatened to veto any bill that tops the $284 billion that Bush has budgeted for transportation projects. Also, the House bill is laden with thousands of individual projects, while the Senate version funnels most of the money to states by formula.

Lawmakers predicted that delivering a final bill will be a heavy lift and that they may not meet their May 31 target for completing negotiations.

"You'd have to be a radical optimist" to meet the deadline, which is when the current extension of the previous bill expires, said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The Senate bill started at the $284 billion figure that Bush has sought but grew by $11 billion during the floor debate after senators amassed tax increases and other revenue raisers so they could boost funding, in particular for states that receive less in highway money than they contribute to the Highway Trust Fund.

The legislation lays out a complex funding structure that takes into account a state's contribution to the trust fund, which is mainly derived from gasoline tax revenue. Funding also takes into account special factors, including rules that protect states with small populations, low median household incomes and high fatality rates on interstate highways. The package contains programs to expedite high-priority projects, relieve truck congestion and construct ferry terminals.

The House kept its cost at $284 billion but included a provision that would allow Congress to reconsider state funding allocations before the legislation expires in 2009. The White House has threatened to veto the legislation unless that provision is dropped. The House version also includes 4,000-plus "high-priority" projects not found in the Senate version.

Funding battles have been fought over the legislation since 2003, when the previous bill expired. In February 2004, the Senate passed a $318 billion package but could not reach a compromise with the House. This time, lawmakers said, the differences may be easier to bridge.

"Not only did we not go too high, but we also made sure it was . . . totally paid for," said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). "We have a good opportunity for both the president and the Congress to come together and pass this thing."

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