Congress Approves Big Highway Bill

A conductor on the "L" train checks the platform from mid-train as the doors close at the Broadway Junction stop, Thursday, March 24, 2005 in Brooklyn, New York. The New York City Transit Authority will begin running computer-automated trains on the 22-mile "L" subway line through Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Conductors riding in the middle cab will be phased out on targeted lines, though a train operator will continue to oversee controls in the front cab of each train.
Congress on Friday passed sweeping highway and mass transit legislation that will send nearly $300 billion to the states to build and fix roads, create thousands of new jobs and — lawmakers hope — save lives and cut hours wasted in traffic jams.

The bill "will affect every American in some way," said Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt. "The impact of this bill will be felt for decades to come."

The 91-4 vote in the Senate came hours after the House approved the measure, 412-8.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., speaking shortly before the House passed the six-year, $286.4 billion transportation bill, said that after passage maybe fathers would have to answer the question "Daddy, when are we going to get there?" three or four fewer times in their lives.

Afterward, lawmakers streamed out of the Capitol, heading home for their summer break carrying promises of new highway and bridge projects, rail and bus facilities, and bike paths and recreational trails they had secured for their states and districts.

Pretty much everyplace gets something, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Fuss. The bill is also stuffed with thousands of so-called "earmarks," projects big and small that influential members of Congress have put in to by-pass state highway department priorities and make a splash in their home districts.

President Bush, in a statement, promised to sign the bill that "will strengthen and modernize the transportation networks vital to America's continued economic growth."

Under the legislation, each state would receive a share of federal highway funding depending on their contributions — through the federal gas tax — to the Highway Trust Fund. The bill, running more than 1,000 pages, also specifies thousands of projects requested by individual members.

The projects range from two bridges in Alaska, one named for House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, funded at more than $450 million, to $72,000 for a bus in Cornwall, N.Y.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, which lists 6,361 of these projects valued at $23 billion, and other watchdog groups say such projects are wasteful, handed out as political rewards.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., cited dozens of what he suggested were questionable projects in a highway bill, including $3 million to fund production of a documentary about infrastructure advancements in Alaska.

The bill, he said, is "terrifying in its fiscal consequences and disappointing for the lack of fiscal discipline." Joining McCain in voting against the bill were Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

But other lawmakers say the projects are determined on merit and see them as essential to their states and communities.

They say money for infrastructure is well spent when congestion costs American drivers 3.6 billion hours of delay and 5.7 billion gallons of wasted fuel every year. Substandard road conditions and roadside hazards are a factor in nearly one-third of the 42,000 traffic fatalities annually, officials say, and every $1 billion in highway construction creates 47,500 jobs.

"I don't think there is anything this Congress could do more definitively to put people back to work, to stimulate our economy to increase our efficiency, our competitiveness, both nationally and internationally," said Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, a top Democrat on the Transportation Committee.

The bill allots more than $50 billion for transit programs and $6 billion for transportation safety.

Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, said she was pleased that the legislation would require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to create stability standards by 2009 to prevent vehicle rollovers.