Road Warrior on the Hill Battles for Bridges and Highways
Rep. Bud Shuster wants more money for roads and airports. But does it bust the budget?
WASHINGTON — Almost everything about Rep. Bud Shuster says "transportation." The old Pennsylvania Railroad, now enshrined on Monopoly Boards, snaked through his Allegheny Mountain district. The four-lane Bud Shuster Highway links Altoona, Pa., with the Pennsylvania Turnpike - a 53-mile reminder of federal dollars he has turned into tarmac.
On display in his Washington office is the seat belt that saved his life in a 1982 auto accident. There's also the pen President Bush used to sign the 1991 highway-funding bill.
Mr. Shuster, in short, is one of the nation's chief road warriors for transportation. He is an unrelenting champion of putting more money into roads, bridges, and cloverleafs - and not just in his own district.
Now, however, his zeal for spending on infrastructure has brought him into conflict with the White House and his own Republican leadership - and offers a major test of political sentiment on the Hill in an era of improving federal finances.
"We're not talking about Bosnia and we're not talking about who sleeps in the Lincoln bedroom," says the Pennsylvania Republican. "We're talking about what affects the daily lives of virtually every American from the time they get up in the morning."
Shuster is causing problems with both his style and substance. As the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he is pushing a sweeping bill that would spend more on roads, bridges, and airports nationwide than called for in the just-signed federal budget agreement.
The representative has also been known to put transportation considerations above partisan politics or party loyalty - a trait that sometimes annoys GOP leaders.
House leaders knew they had a problem this summer, as soon as Shuster began moving his bill. "Bud uses the analogy, 'I'm like an elephant, I just keep leaning,' "says House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas. "And he is leaning."
Confrontation with the GOP leadership over rewriting the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) has only stiffened Shuster's spine. "The evidence is absolutely overwhelming that while America is growing and prospering, our infrastructure is crumbling," he says.
Among the numbers he cites are Department of Transportation (DOT) findings that, just to maintain current infrastructure, the nation needs to spend $16 billion more each year on highways, $13 billion on mass transit, and $10 billion on aviation than it does now. He points to Illinois, which has seen a 3 percent population increase in the past 10 years, while vehicle-miles traveled has grown 33 percent. Of the 42,000 highway fatalities each year, DOT estimates that up to 30 percent are caused by unsafe roads and bridges.
As a result, Shuster insists the nation can afford to spend more on highways and transit, using surplus revenues the new budget deal is expected to produce.
But President Clinton and congressional Republican leaders stand by the budget deal. You can't spend revenue projections, says majority leader Armey.
Opinions of Shuster vary, but everyone agrees his word carries weight. He proved that last May when he almost brought down the budget deal with demands for more transportation money, a motion that failed by just two votes. His 73-member committee is the largest in the House - and it often votes as a block.
"I think most people would agree that [Shuster] is about as aggressive and single-minded as possible in advancing infrastructure in this country," says Rep. Mark Souder (R) of Indiana. "But sometimes he overreaches."
Shuster, who has served in Congress since 1973 and has seven times won the nominations of both the Republican and Democratic parties in his district, works hard at bipartisanship. "He's been extraordinarily effective, considering the odds," says Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, the committee's top Democrat.
Powerful though he is, Shuster can't force the House leadership to schedule his bill. And his counterpart committee in the Senate has just approved a transportation-funding bill that stays within the budget. So last week, at the request of Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, Shuster agreed to a one-week delay for a final vote in his committee. He's now negotiating with House and Senate leaders to find a compromise.
ISTEA significantly changed how transportation money is divvied up. But many regions, especially the South, still complain that they get back far fewer highway dollars than they send to Washington. The move to renew ISTEA, which expires at the end of this month, set off a free-for-all among regions to grab more funds.
Shuster has tried to circumvent this by basically promising more to everybody. He wants to spend $27 billion more over three years than the budget deal calls for, arguing that's only 18 percent of the $135 billion in extra revenue projected to come in. Only three states would see their funding fall under his proposal.
Another Shuster crusade is to take the four transportation trust funds "off budget" and spend them on the roads and airports they are collected to support. Those funds, collected from levies such as the gasoline and airline-ticket taxes, cannot be spent on anything else. But since 1969 they've been loaned to the general fund and included in a "unified budget." There, along with the Social Security trust fund, they make the deficit appear billions of dollars less than it would otherwise.
"It's dishonest to tell the American people, when they drive up to the gas pump and pay the gasoline tax, the money's going to be used to build highways or transit systems, and then the money doesn't get spent," Shuster says. "It's wrong."
The Pennsylvanian has recently garnered publicity of a less-favorable nature. Reports say federal prosecutors in Boston are investigating Shuster's ties to a former top aide who is now a lobbyist, and his relationship to two Boston businessmen who had land disputes connected to the city's $10-billion "Big Dig" project. Shuster has called the charges "baloney."
Still, he fights on for transportation. "I'm dedicated to this," he says. "If they put on my tombstone 40 years from now 'He helped build America,' I'll be satisfied."