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  •   Hill Pours $217 Billion Into Transportation

    By Eric Pianin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, May 23, 1998; Page A04

    Congress yesterday capped marathon back-room haggling by passing a $217 billion, six-year public works bill that will lavish record funds on the nation's highways, bridges and mass transit systems and address long-festering regional disparities that have shortchanged many southern, midwestern and western states.

    Under mounting pressure from governors and state transportation officials to act before the start of the summer construction season, the Senate approved the compromise legislation, 88 to 5, and the House later voted 297 to 86 in favor of the package. Even before Congress had completed its work, President Clinton announced that he would sign the measure, declaring that the 40 percent increase in spending over the next six years would "keep our country strong and vibrant."

    But Clinton said he was disappointed that the negotiators had dropped a provision backed by the administration and a majority of senators that would have imposed a tough new anti-drunken driving standard on the states. House Republicans and Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) opposed a mandated standard and insisted instead on a $500 million program of incentives to encourage states to voluntarily adopt a tough ".08" blood-alcohol level drunken driving standard.

    The behemoth legislation -- hammered out during protracted, closed-door negotiations by Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) and Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) -- is packed with record-breaking spending for 1,850 "pork barrel projects," air pollution and traffic mitigation, experimental programs including development of a speedy magnetic levitation train system and dozens of other initiatives.

    Although Senate leaders at one time clucked about the scope of pork barrel spending in the original House-passed bill, in the final days of talks they added 360 projects of their own worth $2.3 billion. That brought to $9.3 billion the total of funds earmarked for highway and bridge projects in targeted congressional districts, as well as $900 million toward construction of a replacement for the federally owned Woodrow Wilson Bridge in the Washington area.

    In all, the new highway bill includes about $173 billion for new highway construction, $41.3 billion for mass transit and the rest for highway safety programs, according to House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee figures. Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) led the charge for more mass transit funding.

    For the first time, Congress will be bound by the legislation to spend virtually all future gasoline tax revenue in the highway trust fund for transportation projects, ending a long-standing practice of diverting part of the funds to other programs or for balancing the budget. Shuster had pressed for a proposal to move the trust fund "off budget" and hence out of the reach of appropriators who have restrained the rate of highway spending in the past.

    But under pressure from Senate appropriations and budget leaders, Shuster settled for a compromise that would allow the appropriators a continued role in highway spending but nonetheless guarantee that most gasoline tax revenues will go for highway and bridge construction.

    Nearly two dozen "donor states" that proportionately received far less in highway funding than northeastern states under the old law received huge funding increases of as much as 70 percent and 80 percent in a move toward ending the disparities.

    Virginia, for example, which received back only 80 cents in highway funding for every dollar it paid into the highway trust fund in the form of gasoline taxes, will receive a 62 percent boost in its annual highway funding allocation. South Carolina, which had been getting back only 72 cents on every dollar of gas taxes, will receive nearly 80 percent more in annual highway funding under the new formula.

    By contrast, Maryland, which received a dollar-for-dollar reimbursement under the old formula, will see its highway funding rise by only 29 percent. And Massachusetts, which once got back $2.47 for every dollar it put in, largely to finance a massive underground interstate highway project through the heart of Boston, will incur a 41 percent cut in future funding.

    "This is a very, very solid bipartisan, bicameral, equitable bill," Chafee, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, told reporters after the vote. Shuster, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, declared that the bill "is going to alleviate traffic, fill potholes and make our roads safer . . . and put the trust back in the trust fund."

    Congress was nearly a month late in passing new highway legislation when Shuster and Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) announced a tentative deal on Monday. Even then it took nearly round-the-clock dealmaking the rest of the week to get the legislation to the floor before the Memorial Day recess. Disputes over mass transit spending and the highway allocation formula slowed the pace and forced negotiators to scrounge up additional funds to placate the "donor" and "donee" states.

    "You don't have a formula here, you have 50 negotiated numbers," said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).

    Because the highway bill exceeds the spending limitations set by last budget agreement, Congress was obliged to make $17.7 billion of offsetting cuts in other programs. Those include reductions of $15.4 billion in a controversial program to pay health benefits to veterans afflicted with tobacco-related ailments and $2.4 billion in Title 20 social services block grants used by the states for child care, supplemental welfare benefits and other social services.

    Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) strongly objected to the cuts and complained that "this package is loaded up with an incredible number of pork projects in order to drive through the House a legislative steam engine that will bust the budget to smithereens."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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