Bush and Congress Gridlock Over Transportation Policy

Debate centers on mass transit, infrastructure repairs

CARS vs. buses and subways. Cities vs. rural areas. Federal vs. state funds. And congressional Democrats vs. President Bush. These and other divisions are springing up on Capitol Hill as Congress is in the early stages of massaging President Bush's proposal to provide funds from Washington to aid America's deteriorating highways and mass-transit systems. Everyone wants to see passage of some kind of surface transportation proposal, of which the president's is one; but that is where consensus ends.

Some of the reasoning behind these divisions will be aired publicly tomorrow when the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue, holds a hearing on the president's proposal. The plan would provide a total of $105 billion over five years.

The committee will hear representatives of states give the Bush proposal both applause and brickbats. In general, states like the president's ideas of establishing a core 150,000-mile national-highway system and giving states increased flexibility to use federal funding for either highways or mass transit.

What the states don't like is the prospect that they will have to shoulder a growing share of the cost of repairing crumbling highways and deteriorating buses and subways.

States as well as the federal government are scavenging for funds. To meet the cost of improvements they will have to raise taxes or float bonds at a time when they are cutting services; although local voters have shown a willingness to pay more taxes when the money is earmarked for transportation, state officials fear voter wrath nonetheless.

In addition, urban states want still more money made available for mass transit, and large cities worry that state transportation agencies may give them short shrift by ladling out less money than in the past to mass transit. As often happens when competing interests are involved, trust is in short supply.

By contrast, rural states want more money for highways, and less if any for subways and city buses. "That's a typical argument between the highways and mass transit" that has confronted Congress for years, sighs one congressional staff member.

These views and more can be expected to surface at tomorrow's hearing. The House committee already has held two hearings on the surface transportation proposal.

Committee leaders hope that they can reshape the proposal and gain House approval for it in a formal vote by the end of July, when Congress traditionally takes a month-long summer recess.

The Senate already is working on the issue. The Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over mass transit, has already held four hearings and a symposium, and has two more hearings scheduled for next month. Both it and the Senate Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over highway issues, hope to complete their work by midsummer.

House Public Works Committee leaders already have made one thing clear - they want more federal money. The four ranking transportation experts on the committee, two Democrats and two Republicans, have called for a five-year program of $153 billion, compared with Mr. Bush's proposed $105 billion.

"Our spending authorizations should be based on highway and transit needs, not artificial and deceptive budget constraints," says Rep. Norman Mineta (D) of California, chairman of the subcommittee on Surface Transportation.

The committee leaders urge that the federal government authorize $119 billion in the next five years just for highway construction and repair - $14 billion more than the president proposes for both highway and mass transit. Committee leaders ask that an additional $34.5 billion be earmarked for mass transit. They would use the highway trust fund to pay the entire highway expenditure and two-thirds of the mass transit cost.

Money for the trust fund comes from the 14-cent federal tax on every gallon of gasoline sold at the gas pump; at present 12.5 cents of that money goes for highways, and the remaining 1.5 cents goes to mass-transit financing.

Mass-transit advocates in and out of Congress say that at a time when highway congestion and air pollution continue to grow, the president's proposal is tilted toward highways.

The Bush proposal would raise highway funds from $14.5 billion next year to $20 billion five years later, but would increase mass-transit funds only from $3.25 billion to $3.32 billion.

However, part of the disparity could be reduced by the flexibility it would provide states to use up to 15 percent of a state's highway money for mass transit.

Although newer subway systems are doing well, many older large subway and bus systems are losing both riders and money, and face either service cuts or fare hikes.

With cities and states facing their own severe budget problems, congressional representatives of urban areas are consequently seeking more federal funds.

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