House Panel Approves Highway Bill
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 25, 1998; Page A01
A key House committee yesterday swiftly approved $217 billion in spending for the nation's highways, bridges, mass transit systems and bicycle paths, virtually assuring passage of one of the biggest public works bills in history.
The House action, coupled with earlier passage by the Senate, assures an increase in spending beyond what anyone thought possible six months ago, lawmakers said. It also marks a substantial alteration in the federal government's priorities outlined in last summer's balanced budget deal -- trading various social programs for election-year outlays on concrete and asphalt.
The initiative is "the most significant piece of transportation legislation in our country's history" since the creation of the interstate highway system in the mid-1950s, according to Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), the author of the House version.
The proposed 42 percent increase is nearly $30 billion more over the coming six years than allowed under the balanced budget agreement and will oblige Congress to find offsetting cuts in other government programs.
Although there are many details to be worked out between the House and Senate over such issues as the shape of the ultimate package of "pork-barrel" projects requested by individual members, funding for replacement of the Washington-area Woodrow Wilson Bridge, tougher anti-drunken driving laws and a new formula for distributing highway funds to the states, Congress now appears on a fast track to clear new highway legislation before a May 1 deadline.
Governors and other state officials and industry and labor officials have urged Congress and the White House to move swiftly to avoid a disruption in the upcoming construction season. Congress ran into trouble last fall trying to approve a new highway bill and passed a six-month extension of the existing law.
For the Washington region, the bill will funnel substantial new funds to local transportation authorities -- a total of $700 million for Virginia, $380 million for Maryland and $100 million for the District of Columbia in each of the next six years. However, one of the area's most pressing needs -- the deteriorating Wilson Bridge -- also emerged as a key bargaining chip in the forthcoming House-Senate haggling.
The House version includes no money for the bridge -- a project that is estimated to cost at least $1.6 billion for a new pair of drawbridges totaling 12 lanes. The Senate version, at the insistence of Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), includes $900 million for the project.
But the House was not shy about including many, many other such special projects in its bill. Crafted largely by Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the bill contains nearly $18 billion worth of projects earmarked for roughly four-fifths of all congressional districts. The 1,400 "high-priority" projects -- widely referred to as pork-barrel spending -- range from $100,000 to "upgrade pedestrian traffic facilities" in Bristol, R.I., to $97 million for a major demolition and reconstruction of an interstate bridge in Oklahoma. The Senate bill, by contrast, contains only a few earmarked projects, although traditionally Senate leaders have waited until the conference with the House to present their lists.
Shuster's bill, called the Building Efficient Surface Transportation and Equity Act (BESTEA), was approved by his committee, 69 to 0, and will be sent to the House floor next week for almost certain passage before Congress departs for the April recess.
Lawmakers viewed the bill as a major triumph for Shuster, a 13-term veteran who has waged a crusade to shake loose billions more from the federal highway trust funds to fix or widen crumbling highways and bridges and spur economic development. Last fall, Shuster infuriated House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) by nearly torpedoing Congress's balanced budget deal with President Clinton. But the committee chairman mended his relations with Gingrich early this year and then outmaneuvered House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) last week by winning GOP leadership backing for his bill.
Even as he negotiated with House leaders, Shuster worked behind the scenes with Sens. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) to force Senate GOP leaders to accept the higher spending levels they once opposed.
"Shuster knows how to work the system," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a member of the committee. "He's at the pinnacle of his power right now. And I think he goes into the conference with the Senate with an awful lot of clout and influence."
Rep. James L. Oberstar (Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee, praised Shuster's skill and persistence in overcoming leadership resistance and dubbed the bill the "Bud E. Shuster Transportation for All Eternity Act."
However, some Senate and House Republicans complained that adding so much in pork-barrel spending sends the wrong signal. Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) charged that Shuster was using the earmarked projects to "buy votes" for his bill. "It stinks," Largent told reporters. Shuster defended the practice, saying all the projects had been carefully vetted and that there is nothing wrong with Congress earmarking 5 percent of the overall spending.
At the heart of Shuster's plan is the requirement that future federal gasoline tax revenue be used exclusively for highway spending and not for other types of spending or offsetting the deficit. Shuster and his allies have fought for years to move the trust fund "off budget" and hence out of bounds for other types of spending or deficit reduction.
As part of the bill approved yesterday, the highway trust fund will no longer be counted as part of the overall budget beginning in fiscal 1999 -- if the Senate agrees.
While the House and Senate bills are only several billion dollars apart in overall spending, there are several important differences:
The Senate version contains a tough anti-drunken driving provision that would financially penalize states that decline to lower the legal blood alcohol limit to 0.08, while Shuster has rejected that approach in favor of offering states economic incentives for lowering the blood alcohol limit and adopting other traffic safety measures.
The House highway spending formula would be more generous to states with large populations while the Senate plan is more advantageous to smaller states.
Among the regional projects in the House bill is money for Maryland to complete more work on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, improve Md. 210 into Charles County and build a new Capital Beltway interchange in Prince George's County. In Northern Virginia, funds would go to improve Route 123 in Fairfax and Prince William counties and construct more of the Fairfax County Parkway.
In the District, the bill would finance a new computer system for the motor vehicles department. It would also pay for a study of light rail in the city, a bicycle-pedestrian trail between the Union Station and Silver Spring Metro stops and improvements to the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge.
Staff writers Charles R. Babcock, Stephen C. Fehr and Alice Reid contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company