Congress OKs $203B Highway Bill

Congress decisively endorsed the biggest highway and mass transit bill ever on Friday, a six-year, $203 billion package that promises to create tens of thousands of jobs and help restore the nation's crumbling infrastructure.

The House passed the bill 297-86 shortly after the 88-5 vote on the last major piece of business before Congress leaves for the Memorial Day recess.

President Clinton, while saying the legislation should have taken a tougher stand against drunken driving, said the road-building funding would "keep our country strong and vibrant." He said he would be "pleased to sign it into law."

The bill increases highway funding by 40 percent over the last six-year plan, rewrites the formulas for distributing money to help ensure that each state gets its fair share and substantially boosts mass transit spending, to $36 billion over six years.

It also includes more than $9 billion for special highway projects, a sum condemned by some as pork-barrel spending to keep lawmakers in favor back home.

According to final figures, the bill provides $167 billion for highways and $36 billion for mass transit over the life of the program.

It includes $719 million to encourage states to crack down on drunken driving, although Clinton said he was "deeply disappointed" the final version did not accept Senate language that would have penalized states not enforcing a stringent .08 blood alcohol content level for drunken driving.

Backers hailed it as a major advance for the nation's safety and well-being. They cited figures that 42,000 jobs are created for every $1 billion spent on roads, and that highway improvements envisioned in the bill could save up to 10 percent of the 40,000 people killed in traffic accidents every year.

"This bill is going to alleviate traffic, fill potholes and make our roads safer," said Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

But some lawmakers complained that the bill was too expensive and unfair to some states.

"This package is loaded up with an incredible number of pork projects in order to drive through the House a legislative steam engine that will bust the budget to smithereens," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis.

Obey objected to the decision to cut $15.5 billion in veterans programs and $1.8 billion in social service programs to make up for the amount the highway funding exceeds caps set last year in the balanced budget agreement.

Veterans groups have strongly protested a decision, backed by the administration, to end a program to provide disability compensation for veterans who took up smoking in the military and later came down with tobacco-related diseases.

Congressional staffers worked late into the night every night in the past week to fine-tune formulas determining how much each state gets; and unlike in the past, when some states got as little as 70 cents back for very dollar paid into the highway trust fund, each state was guaranteed at least a 90.5 cent return.

But Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., whose state would still get back less than it pays in gas taxes, complained that "a few states are being discriminated against in order that other states which are represented heavily on the committees that make the decisions will get more than their fair share."

Kyl was one of the five senators to vote against the bill, with Slade Gorton, R-Wash., William Roth, R-Del., Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Paul Wellstone, D-Minn.

The bill also ensures for the first time that the money paid into the highway trust fund in gas taxes will go to highway building, and not be diverted for other uses. The net result, said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, one of the champions of the idea, will be "a dramatic increase in resources to build new roads."

The previous, short-term, highway bill expired on May 1, and lawmakers were under growing pressure to get a bill to the president before the end of the month, before states start running out of money for summer construction projects.

Written by Jim Abrams
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