Congress's Road Show

Washington is finally sinking its teeth into one of the meatiest items on the legislative table: reauthorization of the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.

That mouthful - which goes by the acronym ISTEA ("ice tea") - embraces nearly every expenditure of federal transportation money. Most lawmakers, thinking in local rather than party terms, are scrambling for new roads and bridges for their constituencies.

Some, from urban states and districts, want more spending on mass transit. A few champion the environmental and aesthetic elements initiated by the 1991 act.

With its multiple attractions, ISTEA could easily bowl over last year's balanced-budget agreement. Budget tensions underlay the March 2 agreement by Senate negotiators to add $25.8 billion in new highway spending, boosting the roads and bridges portion of the package to $173 billion over six years - a 40 percent jump beyond recent spending and far more than projected by the balanced-budget deal. Present plans call for the overage to be made up by shifting federal gas-tax revenues into highway funding. The gas-tax increase that was passed in 1993 has been going to deficit reduction instead.

But Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico has vowed offsetting cuts in other areas as well to assure the budget isn't knocked out of balance by ISTEA. What will give? Republican tax cuts are one obvious choice.

A May 1 deadline looms. (That's when an extension of the old act runs out.) Mass-transit programs will be contentious; they deserve to receive more dollars as part of the larger new ISTEA package. Southerners and Westerners are determined to get added highway dollars, feeling they've been shortchanged over the years.

The House's version of the bill, meanwhile, promises to be even more generous than the Senate's. Along the way, ISTEA reauthorization will be become a dart board for amendments ranging from a dilution of federal air-pollution standards (we say definitely "no") to stricter standards on drunk driving (a 62-32 Senate vote March 4 to include this deserves applause).

In the end, robust spending on the nation's roads is a given - both for political reasons and because of actual need. Unless lawmakers want to get ticketed for hypocrisy, however, they had better keep one foot firmly on the balanced-budget brake.

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