New federal highway and transit legislation cleared the first intersection yesterday when a House Public Works subcommittee reported a five-year, $75 billion program that has something for almost everybody and includes more than 100 special road projects paid entirely with federal funds.
The bill is at great variance with a version working its way through the Senate and with the Transportation Department's proposed legislation. The congressional authorization for both federal highway and transit programs expires Sept. 30, so the issue must be addressed in this session of Congress if the program that brought us the interstate highway network is to continue.
Lester Lamm, president of the Highway Users Federation and a former deputy federal highway administrator, said of the subcommittee's bill, "About the only thing it has going for it is that it has broad support in the full committee and is likely to pass quickly." However, he said, the differences between House and Senate proposals are such that "we're heading toward a lengthy conference, and we might be running out of time."
A centerpiece in that conference will doubtless be the Public Works proclivity for something called "demonstration projects," an off-ramp here, a bridge there, fully funded by the federal government. Almost all other federal highway projects require that at least 10 percent of the money come from the states.
The bill reported yesterday authorizes about 105 such projects at a total cost of more than $1.2 billion. The money would come from the highway trust fund but would not count against an annual highway spending ceiling of about $12 billion, imposed to keep federal expenditures within the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget-balancing limits.
The demonstration projects proposed in the bill include 17 each in California and Illinois and 10 in Pennsylvania. The Public Works Committee has 52 members, including five from Pennsylvania, four from California and three from Illinois.
Since demonstration projects have to demonstrate something, the legislative language typically reads like this:
"The secretary shall carry out a highway project to replace a ramp which provides access to an industrial area of Cleveland, Ohio, for the purpose of demonstrating the relationship between infrastructure improvement and economic vitality."
The projects include an $8 million rebuilding of the main Georgetown University entrance on Canal Road in Washington, a project that has not made the District's highway priority list but has been backed by Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), who was lobbied by Georgetown University officials.
The Senate bill as presently drafted does not include demonstration projects, although they may well be added there before it is all over. As a Senate source put it yesterday, "It's tough going into a conference with those guys if you don't have a few projects of your own."
Lamm contends that the burgeoning of demonstration projects reflects a shift in highway construction needs that federal legislation has yet to recognize.
For years, the highway program has been geared to the completion of the 42,500-mile interstate system. Now the system is almost done, but many new roads are needed and many older roads require heavy reconstruction. At a time of tight budgets, these requirements are putting a lot of pressure on the federal program.
The highway trust fund, the engine that built the interstate system and many other roads and bridges, is financed primarily by a 9-cent-per-gallon federal gasoline tax.
However, to hold down total federal spending, the highway spending ceiling has been set lower than the dollars collected by the trust fund. While that makes total federal expenditures smaller, highway interests charge with some logic that they are being penalized because they cannot build projects they have paid for. Rep. Glenn M. Anderson (D-Calif.), chairman of the Public Works surface transportation subcommittee, said the proposed legislation "is consistent with the budget process and with what the trust fund can afford." Anderson has been a staunch defender of demonstration projects.
The legislation would provide authorizations of $13.9 billion annually for the federal highway program, but would restrict actual spending to $12 billion. It also would provide a transit program of $3.2 billion the first year, which would increase slightly by 1991.
A major conflict that was sidestepped yesterday but is certain to rise again was the issue of how much gasoline tax money collected in each state should come back to the state in the form of federal highway aid. The Senate draft guarantees that states get at least 85 percent of what they contribute; under the House proposal the 85 percent figure would only apply to part of the highway program.