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Transportation bill: Relief, not pork, supporters say

Foes blast the federal plan's cost, but others want traffic solutions

By Tamara Lytle, Scott Powers
Orlando Sentinel

WASHINGTON – President Bush sees congressional road-building plans during the next six years as a budget buster, perhaps bad enough to impose the first veto of his presidency.

Anti-tax groups see the proposed federal highway bill as paved with political pork.

But Cindy Fitzgibbon of Windermere sees a safer way for her kids to get to school along a new bike and walking path instead of across a haphazard sidewalk and a hazardous footbridge.

Connie and Rodney Gainer of Polk County see easing the congestion on U.S. Highway 27, which they drive to work and the grocery store. And Donovan Williams sees an end to the 20-minute, rush-hour wait to drive just a half-mile on Eatonville's main street.

Money to help solve those three problems, along with more than 120 others in Florida, is tucked into the U.S. House's $275 billion version of a bill that will set federal transportation spending for the next six years.

The Senate passed a $318 billion version of the bill in February, and the two chambers now must hammer out a compromise on just how much will be spent and which states get the most money.

State may get $10.9 billion
Once put together, the bill will represent the federal government's road-building agenda through 2009 – a massive plan that for the most part funnels money to state transportation officials to build and repair roads and bridges and to improve mass transportation.

Florida – with its rampant growth and choked roads and bridges – would get $9 billion under the House bill or $10.9 billion under the Senate version. Both are increases over the $7.8 billion the state received during the past six years.

The special projects that Fitzgibbon, Williams and the Gainers are counting on to ease their daily stresses are likely to survive the coming months of negotiations over the bill.

But those so-called "high-priority projects"– pet items such as $13 million to uncover and repair the bricks on a stretch of Church Street through Orlando's troubled Parramore neighborhood – are controversial.

Projects such as those are "earmarked" in the bill to definitely get money, regardless of whether state or local officials think they're really priorities. About $60 million worth of projects in Central Florida is earmarked in the House version of the bill; the Senate version has no such set-asides.

Most of the federal highway money – about 90 percent – will be parceled out among the states, where transportation departments can set their own priorities. But about $18 billion nationwide likely will be reserved in earmarks – which critics call mountains of cash for pet projects that make folks happy back home.

David Williams, vice president of the nonprofit Citizens Against Government Waste, called it a "slush fund" to help members of Congress curry favor with voters.

"A lot of this is: 'Look at the road I'm building. Now re-elect me,' " said Williams, who hopes Bush keeps his promise to veto the bill. "They get to use taxpayer dollars to get re-elected."

The House bill has about 2,800 road and bridge projects and 300 bus and transit earmarks. It represents the most-ever set-asides for a federal highway bill.

Congress builds a massive plan for spending that money every six years. The earmarked projects started showing up in 1982, when that plan included 10 such projects. That grew to 157 in 1987 and 538 in 1990. The most recent program, created in 1998, had 1,851 such projects.

Williams' group and others point to set-asides such as $250,000 for the Blue Ridge Travel Association Web site, millions for transportation museums in various congressional districts and $1.5 million for horse trails in Virginia. They argue U.S. gas-tax payers shouldn't pay for local projects that otherwise would not be considered a priority.

'It's worth my tax dollars'
But don't tell that to Central Florida residents sitting in traffic or trying to get their children to school on dangerous paths.

"I feel, hey, it's worth my tax dollars," Connie Fitzgibbon said of the $500,000 for a Windermere bike and walking path. "I am a house mom that started taking my kids to school and was just shocked at how dangerous it was. The whole area is really congested with cars. That's parents' worst fear. We literally have to go out in the street and stop cars."

So almost every day she jogs alongside daughter Sophia, 8, and son Evan, 5, and other children from the neighborhood on the town's old, incomplete path, including the footbridge, which is so dangerous it causes numerous bike accidents.

Worrisome truck traffic
Rodney Gainer, 50, who lives in the Westridge neighborhood in Polk County, said he hopes his route to Berry Town Center – on U.S. 27 – will get the $8 million in improvements that would speed up plans to widen it to six lanes.

"It will probably be good for growth," Gainer said. The heavy truck traffic that flies by their Westridge neighborhood is what concerns him most. "It probably won't slow [truckers] down, but it might keep them out of the way."

The $3 million Eatonville project would widen Kennedy Boulevard, where Donovan Williams' family owns 3D Tire Co.

"I'm one of those who wants the road to happen," said Williams, 31. "One man's pork is another man's road project. In the end, it's gotta happen."

Critics such as David Williams say taxpayers should realize that even if they're getting a few local pork projects, they're paying for thousands more in other people's neighborhoods.

The Senate bill does not include any specific projects. But traditionally senators have slid their own pet road and bridge improvements into the final compromise negotiated in a conference committee made up of a handful of representatives and senators, with much of the deal-cutting done behind closed doors.

Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, who pushed for the Eatonville project, the Church Street improvements and other earmarks, said lawmakers know what their neighborhoods need.

Florida's earmarked projects total about $500 million under the House bill; that's about the same that goes to the sparsely populated but politically powerful state of Alaska.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, help steer money to their state. Young also has enough clout that the acronym for the Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (TEA-LU) is named after his wife's nickname, Lu.

Bill going to conference
The earmarks are not the only controversial part of the bill. The conference committee will have to sort out just how much to spend in the end.

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., a member of the Senate Environment Committee, and Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, a member of the House Transportation Committee, are likely to be named conferees on the bill during the week of April 19.

The bill's bottom line is a flash point with the White House.

Bush has said he will veto either version of the bill because each is more than the $256 billion that the Highway Trust Fund will generate during the next six years, based on the 18.3 cents a gallon that motorists pay in federal tax to fuel their vehicles, and earnings on investments.

The most recent six-year plan called for $218 billion in federal spending.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he thinks Bush's number is too low.

"I just returned from Orlando, and I'll tell you, if you want to get in a traffic jam, you don't have to go out in rush hour," he said. "I like $318 billion. It's necessary. If you want to do something for a sick economy, that's one way to get jobs in the economy immediately."

Brown and others hope to work out the problems in the conference committee. So do motorists and pedestrians in Central Florida whose daily commutes would be affected.

"The infrastructure in the United States is caving in as we speak," she said.

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