WASHINGTON -- President Bush has decided to sign the $151 billion highway and mass transit bill, Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner announced yesterday as the massive, six-year measure headed toward final approval by Congress.

The White House decision to support the bill represents a reversal of previous threats to veto the measure because of its proposed 2.5 cents a gallon gasoline tax extension, as well as its large spending levels and generous 80% federal funding shares for transportation projects.

"The President was very pleased with the maximum flexibility the bill gives to the states to put the money where it's needed," as well as its creation of a 155,000-mile National Highway System, which would receive $38 billion of the bills' funding, said Sen. Steven Symms, R-Idaho, one of the bill's principal sponsors.

The new authority the bill would give state and local governments to diver money previously used exclusively for highways into all kinds of projects needed to relieve congestion and air pollution and increase efficiency, was hailed by the bills' authors yesterday as one of its most "revolutionary" features. The new authority would be created primarily through the establishment of a new $24 billion flexible transportation program.

"This is the first legislation of the post-interstate era. It takes a quantum leap forward," said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moyniha, D-N.Y.

Another major refor in the bill would give metropolitan planning organizations in cities with populations over 200,000 much greater authority -- at the expense of the states -- to approve transportation projects, said Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., who added that the change would make the program much less highway-oriented.

Because of the large amount of spending authorized in the bill, and its ability to quickly open up nearly two million construction jobs, it was also trumpeted as the most significant economic stimulus bill to pass Congress this year. Congressional aides said its ability to aid the economy was an important consideration for the White House in its decision to sign the bill.

"This is the most important bill of this Congress," said House Public Works and Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Roe, D-N.Y. "It is a gerat victory for the American economy, for our nation's productivity" and "it will result in a dramatic reshaping of our nation's transportation policies," he said.

Congressional leaders predicted that the bill would be passed by overwhelming margins. The full House and Senate were expected to vote on final passage of the measure in the early hours of this morning.

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