The House-passed bill for U.S. funding to rebuild the crater-laden Woodrow Wilson bridge and restructure a multibillion-dollar nationwide mass transit program probably will die along with the Democratic-controlled Senate, Capitol Hill experts agreed yesterday.
"Funny things can happen in the closing hours of a lame-duck session," a key Senate staffer said yesterday, "but right now that bill is dead." No one could be found who would disagree with him, and many agreed.
The practical effect for the thousands of Washington area commuters who use the Wilson bridge to bounce across the Potomac River twice every weekday is that the badly needed replacement deck on the federally-owned bridge probably will be delayed once again. Work could begin next spring with a hurry-up authorization and appropriation.
The bill in question, The Surface Transportation Act of 1980, passed the House 346 to 43 last Thursday and was sent to the Senate for what was presumed to be routine approval. It turned out there was a catch. The issue is not the relatively piddling $60 million for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, but the mass transit funding proposals, which are the heart of the $29.3 billion, five-year authorization.
As many as six-senators had "holds" on the bill yesterday afternoon, thereby blocking the unanimous consent that would be needed before the Senate could even consider it. Key among them is Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho), a leader of the Senate conservative bloc and incoming chairman of the Energy Committee, who has a multitude of problems with the bill, according to a spokesman.
"The biggest problem," a spokesman for another Republican senator said yesterday, "is that the bill has a five-year authorization for mass transit. That means that [president-elect] Ronald Reagan might never have anything to say about mass transit authorizations, and that just isn't right."
Earlier this session, the Senate passed a similar transit bill without the bridge funding, but it was substantially amended by the House. Even if unanimous consent could be gained, the Senate would have to agree to the House changes or send the matter to a last-second conference committee.
The House-passed bill authorized $3 billion annually through fiscal 1985 for capital investment in transit. That is the money local governments use to buy buses, improve garages or open new subway stations, and it is a $1 billion annual increase over current funding. Transit authorities, Washington Metro among them, vigorously have sought multiyear authorizations so they could do valid long-range planning for bus expansion and subway construction.
The bill would substantially redistribute $2.5 billion in annual federal operating assistance to local transit authorities on the basis of how much service they provide instead of how many people live in the localities.
One of the anomalies of federal transit aid under the existing population-based formula is that cities providing the least transit often get a bigger percent of their operating cost paid by the federal government than cities that have made a major commitment to transit.
Another touchy issue in the bill is that it modifies the Department of Transportation rule requiring that all new buses be equipped with wheelchair lifts. The bill would permit localities to develop alternatives to lift-equipped buses, while maintaining the requirement that they provide service for the handicapped.
"We're getting awfully close to getting the hell out of here," a minority spokesman said, "and this bill just has too many problems."