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Senate passes transportation bill; potholes mark road ahead

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post

The Senate voted 76 to 21 Thursday (Feb. 12) to approve a $318 billion transportation bill, but the legislation faces White House opposition over its price tag, and it differs from a costlier bill pending in the House.

The six-year measure would fund highways, bridges, road improvements, mass transit and safety programs. It is the successor to a $218 billion transportation bill passed in 1998 that expired last year but has been extended through the end of this month.

The local transportation projects the bill would finance are politically popular with lawmakers and their constituents. But the cost cannot be covered completely by the federal Highway Trust Fund, which is supported by the gasoline tax. The price tag has alarmed fiscal conservatives at a time of rising budget deficits and calls from President Bush to rein in spending.

After losing an 86 to 11 vote that ended their filibuster of the bill early yesterday, GOP conservatives tangled with other Republicans who were willing to accept higher spending in return for the 1.6 million jobs they say the bill will create.
"Never get between a congressman and asphalt, because you will always get run over," said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who opposed the bill. "A bunch of us are about to be roadkill. . . . The bottom line is, we're spending a ton of money and we're not paying for it."

Supporters said the bill had to be large to address crumbling bridges and traffic-clogged roads that burden the economy and, by extension, dampen tax revenues.

"America will rescue us from this fiscal situation if America can get to work in the morning," said Sen. James M. Talent (R-Mo.).

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called the bill "one of the most important" on Congress's agenda this year. "It is an essential element in moving our economy forward," he said.

Democrats, who generally favored the bill, needed little convincing. "Our highways, our rail and our interstate system, in particular, are the foundation for jobs and economic growth," said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.).

"This is a jobs bill," said Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), the ranking minority member on the Environment and Public Works Committee. "There's no other jobs bill that can do so much."

The Senate Finance Committee worked out budgetary maneuvers that lawmakers said would increase the money going into the Highway Trust Fund without raising the gasoline tax or inflating the deficit. The moves, however, would reduce tax revenue that now finances other government activities.

The administration says the bill is still too expensive. It wants spending levels to match the revenue available in the Highway Trust Fund, which is fed by a federal tax of 18.4 cents a gallon on gasoline.

Bush has requested a $256 billion, six-year transportation bill, which represents a 21 percent increase over the previous measure. His advisers said this week they would recommend that he veto the Senate bill.

"This is the first test for the Congress when it comes to spending restraint," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday. "We urge Congress to hold the line on spending." The House, which voted Wednesday to extend the existing transportation program through June, is considering a bigger bill than the one passed by the Senate. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is expected to take up a $370 billion measure on Feb. 25, said Steve Hansen, a committee spokesman.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the panel's chairman, has proposed an increase of 8 cents a gallon in the federal gasoline tax over several years to pay for it. Under his proposal, the tax would rise about a nickel the first year and then be adjusted annually for inflation, reaching about 26.4 cents a gallon by 2009. House conservatives ardently oppose increasing the tax, as does Bush.

The fuel tax was last increased in 1993, Hansen said, and Young's goal is merely to compensate for inflation since then. The Senate version offers substantial increases in transportation funding for the Washington region. Maryland would get $3.72 billion over six years, a 40 percent increase over the previous legislation, according to the office of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.). The average increase for all 50 states is 36 percent.

Virginia's funding would increase $1.7 billion, or nearly 40 percent, to $5.96 billion, said a spokesman for Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.). Warner sponsored a provision in the bill that would send $958 million to states to help address pollution from storm-water runoff, money he said would help the Chesapeake Bay and area beaches.

The Senate bill also authorizes $2 billion a year for Amtrak over the next six years, a provision opposed by the White House. The administration wants $900 million for Amtrak next year, and has called for the money-losing rail system to shift more costs to states in which it provides services.