Foes blast the federal plan's cost, but
others want traffic solutions
By Tamara Lytle, Scott Powers
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
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
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
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
"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
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
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he thinks Bush's number is
"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.