Highway bill faces rugged path in D.C.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

WASHINGTON -- The Senate's passage this week of a big highway spending bill was an important first hurdle, but a rugged journey in Congress lies ahead, during which the measure's impact on Missouri could change drastically.

Missouri's two senators, Republicans Kit Bond and Jim Talent, are strong supporters of the legislation.

The major obstacle is the bill's price tag. The Senate bill approved Thursday would cost $318 billion, but the White House wants it held to $256 billion and is threatening to veto anything that costs more.

"Make no mistake about it -- this is the last and only chance to get started on the kind of major construction we need on highways, roads and bridges this year and to do what is needed for mass transit this year," Bond told fellow senators before the vote.

As chairman of a transportation subcommittee, Bond helped write the measure.

Talent argued that the bill should cost even more. He said critics of the bill's cost are ignoring the fact that, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation analysis, $375 billion is needed to fix the nation's crumbling infrastructure.

"This is what I don't understand from the critics of the bill," Talent said Thursday on the Senate floor. "What do they want to do? You know, are these roads just magically going to fix themselves? Is there something defective about this survey?"

Missouri GOP Rep. Roy Blunt, the House majority whip, pointed out that Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, whose agency prepared the study, is supporting the smaller $256 billion bill.

"That puts into question any need to rely on that government number, when the president is not relying on that number," Blunt said.

Talent said deterioration will worsen on the nations highways if Congress doesn't approve enough money. He said the bill's opponents don't intend to fix the problem.

"So what they're saying is go ahead and fix the roads, but you can't raise taxes, you can't use bonds and you can't use general revenue," he said. "And what about the people who die because the roads are no good? What about those people? Tell them we don't need to do any more. Tell their families we don't need to do any more for transportation infrastructure."

What's for Missouri

As the bill stands now, Missouri's fortunes would improve during the next six years.

Money for highways comes from a trust fund financed by the federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon. Under the complex formula determining each state's share, Missouri is a "donor" state that pays more in gas taxes than the government returns.

Missouri currently gets a little more than 91 cents on the dollar, according to the Federal Highway Administration. But under the Senate bill, Missouri would get 95 cents for every dollar it puts into the trust fund beginning next year.

The result would provide Missouri with $1.4 billion more than it gets under the previous bill, for a total of $5.4 billion during the next six years.

Every state would be guaranteed a return of at least 95 cents by 2009; states that have been receiving more than $1, including Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska, would see their rate of return drop slightly.

Also in the bill is an extra $50 million for a new Mississippi River bridge in St. Louis, a priority for Illinois as well as Missouri.

Next destination

The next destination for the highway debate is the House, where some members argue the Senate bill would spend too little, others too much. The House has not yet acted on its version of the bill.

Blunt said Friday the cost will probably fall between the president's request and the Senate-passed number. Blunt warned a veto is likely if the price tag isn't close to what Bush wants, and said he would work to sustain a veto.

"We've got to have some fiscal discipline," Blunt said.

Bill supporters have urged speedy passage of the bill, but Matthew Jeanneret, spokesman for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, said state officials would prefer more money over fast passage. The highway bill provides at least 80 percent of state transportation funding.

"I don't think states are going to settle for getting the bill done quickly if it doesn't give them what they need," Jeanneret said. "States want to see the bill done right as opposed to getting it done for political expediency purposes. Flat funding over the next six years won't help states at all."

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