The House Appropriations Committee yesterday approved a $30.9 billion transportation spending bill for the next fiscal year that contains $4.2 billion more than President Bush had requested for highways, bridges, urban mass transit, railroads and airports.
"You may never see a bill like this again," said Rep. Lawrence Coughlin (Pa.), ranking Republican on the transportation subcommittee, who noted that the measure was written without the restraints of a deficit reduction agreement between Congress and the White House.
But sources said the bill, which satisfies the policy priorities of both the Bush administration and House Democrats while providing funding for dozens of popular local projects, will be difficult to trim back.
House Democrats have made the nation's crumbling "infrastracture" a priority, and the committee yesterday added $2.7 billion to the Bush budget for highways and bridges, $903 million for urban mass transit, and $667 million for railroads.
The big increases for surface transportation reflect the priorities of Rep. William Lehman (D-Fla.), the Miami Beach lawmaker who is chairman of the transportation appropriations subcommittee. Yesterday he reminded the appropriators that "90 percent of our people ride on the highways."
But the appropriators also went most of the way towards meeting the top transportation priority of the Bush administration by providing $1 billion more than in the current year for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Included in the FAA allocation is a 24 percent increase for facilities and equipment, and a comparable funding increase for airport improvements at dozens of sites. The total FAA budget would rise to $8.1 billion, just $107 million less than the Bush administration had sought.
The increased funding for FAA also reflects a peace agreement between Lehman and Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), who have often feuded over aircraft issues in the past.
Oberstar, who chairs the aviation subcommittee of the House Public Works Committee, is scheduled to bring to the House floor today an authorization bill that would allow the appropriators to draw down the $7.6 billion Airport and Airways Trust Fund at a faster rate to finance the FAA budget. The Trust Fund derives most of its revenues from airport users rather than general taxes.
In return for that, the appropriators would continue to pump more money into the nation's air system over the next five years, and the nation's 70 largest airports, including Dulles, National and Baltimore-Washington International, would be authorized to levy a local passenger tax of up to $3 a trip to pay for local improvements, noise abatement and airport security.
That proposed "passenger facility charge" was abandoned by Congress in 1973 and its reintroduction now is expected to arouse heated debate.