Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, repeated his aversion yesterday to providing $600 million in additional federal money for replacing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge but did not rule out granting the Clinton administration's request.
"I have very grave reservations about this, yet I want to try to be helpful," he said at the opening of a House subcommittee hearing on the spending plan, which would complete the funding of a new bridge.
Shuster, whose approval is considered essential, said he might support some form of Wilson Bridge financing as part of "a package that not only accommodates the transportation needs of this region but also accommodates transportation needs around America." He did not detail what other elements would make the proposal more palatable.
Jack Basso, assistant U.S. transportation secretary for budget and programs, said administration officials would remain in contact with Shuster in a bid to win his backing. "I don't know what he had in mind, to be honest. But we will be consulting with him," Basso said after testifying at the hearing.
No additional action on the Wilson Bridge proposal was scheduled by the transportation subcommittee after completing its hearing.
The session marked the first time that advocates of the plan, including administration officials and members of the regional congressional delegation, have appeared before transportation committee members to discuss the proposal to increase the federal contribution to $1.5 billion. The plan calls for $150 million a year in federal money in each of four years starting in 2004.
The proposal received a cool reception from Shuster and other key committee members when it was unveiled in June by the U.S. Department of Transportation after about a year of often tough negotiations with officials from Virginia and Maryland. Those states have agreed that each would pay $200 million toward replacing the bridge.
Whether even this ambitious financing plan could cover the costs of the project was called into question during the hearing yesterday. Raymond J. DeCarli, deputy inspector general at the transportation department, said his analysis has found that the new bridge would cost $227 million more than the projected $1.9 billion.
He attributed the higher price tag to possible construction cost overruns, overtime payments, efforts to reduce the harm to the environment and stabilize the soil at the site, disposal of material dredged from the Potomac River and spending to alleviate traffic congestion during construction.
Basso said the project would be able to remain within the projected cost because of innovative engineering techniques, favorable trends in construction prices and a 35 percent cushion built into the estimate.
"We can stay within that $1.9 billion figure," he said. "We feel strongly about that."