By Jim Abrams
Friday, July 29, 2005
After years of delay, the House was forced to wait another day to pass a $286.4 billion highway and mass-transit bill that would send lawmakers home for their summer vacations bearing big gifts of roads, bridges and jobs.
A scheduled House vote late last night was put off until today when several members strenuously objected to a provision added by the Senate that would reopen a closed runway at an Air Force base in Montana.
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), whose state could lose a submarine base under the latest round of proposed base closings, said it is "absolutely outrageous" that the highway bill is being used to reverse a decision on the closing of a military facility.
House leaders decided to reconvene this morning. The Senate is also scheduled to take up the six-year highway bill today before Congress recesses for its six-week summer break.
With President Bush's signature expected, passage of the act would end an almost two-year impasse in which Congress and the White House battled over the proper spending levels, and states were at odds over how best to divide the billions in federal highway money.
The bill would direct federal funds to thousands of projects requested by lawmakers, from $200 million for a bridge in Alaska to $2 million to pave roads on a South Dakota Indian reservation.
The nation has been without a new highway act since September 2003, when the 1998-2003 law, funded at $218 billion, expired. Since then, Congress has had to pass 11 temporary extensions to keep money flowing to the states for construction projects. That delay has disrupted schedules for new projects and has prevented the hiring of thousands of construction workers.
The final funding level for the 2004-2009 period is nearly $100 billion less than the amount lawmakers and transportation officials have said is necessary to make real improvements in the nation's deteriorating roads and bridges. But the White House has insisted that Congress show fiscal discipline, saying it cannot go along with unbridled spending at a time of large budget deficits and rising military costs.
Even before the final vote, lawmakers were boasting of projects they had won for their states or districts.
"I'm pleased to report that help is on the way for Colorado drivers," said Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.). He said the state would receive a 47 percent increase in federal highway funding, the highest rate of increase of any state, to $2.5 billion.
Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), head of the transportation panel in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, secured $50 million for a new bridge crossing the Missouri River near Kansas City, while Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.), the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, said he succeeded in inserting a provision in the bill to reopen a closed runway at Malmstrom Air Force Base. The bill also designates hundreds of new bus terminals, railways, bike trails, pedestrian walkways and parking lots. Mass transit would receive more than 18 percent of the money, more than $50 billion.
The Finance Committee inserted new tax provisions, raising $495 million over 10 years by funneling some of the taxes on kerosene used as diesel into the Highway Trust Fund, while exempting limousines weighing more than 6,000 pounds from the gas-guzzler tax, at a cost of $46 million over 10 years.
The legislation guarantees that by 2008 every state will get back at least 92 percent of what it contributes through federal gas taxes to the Highway Trust Fund. The current minimum rate of return is 90.5 percent, and the demand of "donor" states for a more equitable division of the federal highway money has been one of the major sticking points in coming up with a compromise bill.