President Bush signed into law a massive $286.4 billion transportation bill Wednesday that includes more than 6,000 pet projects of lawmakers across the country that range from a crucial parkway linking two interstates in Illinois to a snowmobile trail in Vermont.
Bush signed the 1,000-page bill at a Caterpillar Inc. factory in Montgomery, Ill., and called it a "fiscally responsible bill" that will upgrade the country's network of roads, bridges and mass transit systems. He said the six-year bill will "finance needed road improvements and ease traffic congestion in communities across the country."
Critics of the bill called it a bloated, expensive piece of legislation filled mainly with the pet projects of congressmen. Some of the transportation projects included in the bill were $223 million for a bridge to replace a 7-minute ferry ride in Alaska, $2.3 million for landscaping along the Ronald Reagan freeway in California and $400,000 for bicycle and trolley trails in Columbus, Ga.
Bush said one of the key projects of the bill was a parkway in Illinois that would connect two interstate highways. He called such projects "crucial for economic progress."
Bush, wearing no tie, no jacket and with his shirtsleeves rolled up, said the bill will give "hundreds of thousands of Americans good-paying jobs" and increase safety on the nation's roads.
"If we want people working in America, we got to make sure our highways and roads are modern," he said. He said the bill would bring America's transportation network "into the 21st century."
Bush said the government will not raise gasoline taxes to pay for the legislation, which was passed overwhelmingly by Congress just before the lawmakers left for summer recess.
Wednesday's bill signing marked the second time this week that Bush has left his August vacation at his Texas ranch to sign and highlight recently passed legislation. He signed an energy bill Monday.
Bush had threatened to veto the transportation bill if it was too big for his liking. A number of congressmen had wanted a $400 billion highway bill. Bush had wanted the legislation to be about $250 billion. It took nearly two years for Congress to reach a compromise the White House would accept.
Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy for Taxpayers for Common Sense, told the Associated Press that it was fitting the president signed the legislation in Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert's district "because the speaker's district has the third highest amount of highway pork in the nation."
Ashdown said the distribution of the money "is based far more on political clout than on transportation need."
Supporters of the bill argued instead that projects were included on merit. They say money to update transportation infrastructure is well spent, considering that traffic congestion costs Americans billions of hours of delay and billions of gallons of wasted fuel a year.
Officials say substandard road conditions are a factor in nearly one-third of the country's 42,000 traffic fatalities a year. They also say that every $1 billion spent in highway construction creates 47,500 jobs.