WASHINGTON -- Congress gave final approval to the $151 billion highway and mass transit bill Wednesday, ushering in a new era of significantly higher federal spending on transportation projects.
The bill, which President Bush has signaled he will sign, increases federal spending on highway projects by 40%, to $114.8 billion between fiscal years 1992 and 1997, from the $68.9 billion spent on highways in the last five years, according to the Transportation Department.
In a breakthrough for alternative forms of transportation, the bill also would virtually double spending for mass transit, to $31.5 billion over the next six years, sponsors said.
The higher funding levels in the bill -- and the sometimes radical new transportation policies it would initiate -- are in keeping with pledges by House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., and other congressional leaders to do something this year about the deteriorating infrastructure.
Those pledges came as congressional Democrats decided early this year to include the transportation infrastructure programs among a select group of domestic programs that would benefit from a small "peace dividend," which is to be derived from lower defense spending.
The President's apparent acquiescence to the bill's high spending levels -- after recommending an overall level of only $105 billion over five years -- is a sign not only of the program's popularity, but that he, too, may be increasingly willing to shift spending from defense into high priority domestic areas that had been neglected during the Cold War, congressional aides said.
"The bill embodies the accomplishment of one of the President's top two domestic agenda items," said Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner. "It will create jobs, reduce congestion, and rebuild our infrastructure."
Besides reversing the decline in federal transportation aid during the 1980s and infusing more funds into the transportation system, the bill is the first in recent years which espouses to help state and local governments comply with a growing list of federal mandates, instead of simply adding to those mandates.
It empowers state and local governments to divert a good portion of the funding from traditional highway projects into more efficient transit projects and alternatives, ranging from bike paths to carpools. It also for the first time earmarks $6 billion projects that would help cities comply with Clean Air Act auto emission standards.
The bill also provides more federal funding for toll roads and loosens up the rules governing toll road projects by permitting states for the first time to use toll revenues from one road to subsidize other projects and improvements.
Despite the approved bill's high funding levels, the bill was plagued throughout each stage of enactment with disputes over the amount of money allocated to each state. The Senate's closing debate on the bill was no exception.
Senators from some southern states that are projected to receive less than 100 cents in grants for each dollar of gasoline tax receipts they contribute to the highway trust fund strongly objected to the funding formulas in the bill.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., arguing that more of the bill's funding should have been devoted to highways, pointed out that it will not even cover a quarter of an estimated $491 billion of backlogged highway projects.
"Though it has great vision for the 21st century, it is a bill of missed opportunities," he contended.
He and other opponents, however, eventually bowed in the face of overwhelming support for the bill. The Senate approved it Wednesday afternoon by 79 to 8 after the House approved it in the early morning on a lopsided 372-to-47 vote.