WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congress is on the verge of approving $286.4 billion in highway and mass transit money for the states, sending lawmakers home for their summer vacations bearing big gifts of roads, bridges and jobs.
The House was to vote on the six-year measure, its last major act before recessing for the six-week summer break. The Senate was set to follow suit.
With the president's expected signature, passage of the act would end an almost two-year impasse in which Congress and the White House battled over the proper spending levels and states were at odds over how best to divide up the billions in federal highway money.
The bill would direct federal funds to thousands of projects requested by members, from $200 million for a bridge in Alaska to $2 million to pave roads on a South Dakota Indian reservation.
The nation has been without a new act since September 2003, when the 1998-2003 law, funded at $218 billion, expired. Since then, Congress has had to pass 11 temporary extensions to keep money flowing to the states for construction projects. That delay has disrupted schedules for new projects and prevented the hiring of tens of thousands of construction workers.
The final funding level for the 2004-‘09 period is nearly $100 billion less than lawmakers and transportation officials have said is necessary to make real improvements in the nation's deteriorating, congested and unsafe roads and bridges.
Lawmakers said they were generally satisfied. The bill, said Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), who heads the minority on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, "will make our nation's roads and bridges safer and less congested and create thousands of jobs from coast to coast.'
"It's not going to solve the nation's congestion crisis, but it is a step in the right direction,' said Ed Mortimer, director of transportation infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The bill also designates hundreds of new bus terminals, railways, bike trails, pedestrian walkways and parking lots. Mass transit receives more than 18% of the money, more than $50 billion, while $6 billion is set aside for transportation safety programs.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., top Democrat on the Finance Committee, said he had succeeded in inserting a provision in the bill to reopen a closed runway at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
The Finance Committee also inserted several new tax provisions, raising $495 million over 10 years by funneling some taxes on kerosene used as diesel into the Highway Trust Fund, while exempting limousines over 6,000 pounds from the Gas Guzzler tax, at a cost of $46 million over 10 years. It also caps the 10% excise tax on fishing rods at $10.