WASHINGTON -- Congressional leaders yesterday vowed to complete action before tomorrow's adjournment on a compromise $151 billion highway and mass transit reauthorization bill that House and Senate conferees forged over the weekend.
"We will take up the highway bill" today and complete action before "the rising of the sun Wednesday morning," said House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash. "The highway bill will be the most important job-producing bill of this Congress."
Rep. Foley -- long an advocate for increased spending on transportation andother infrastructure projects -- was joined by other congressional leaders over the weekend, who said the bill was one of three measures that must pass before Congress can go home for the holidays.
The six-year compromise bill includes a controversial provision of the House highway bill that would extend for four years the 2.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase enacted as part of the budget agreement last year. The tax extension would pay for the bill's last two years of spending.
Also, in a victory for state and local governments, the compromise bill would provide 80% federal funding for approved transportation projects, with states required to supply only a 20% matching share. President Bush, by contrast, had proposed greatly increasing the state matching share to as much as 40% in some cases, in a bid to force states to leverage federal dollars more.
"We're very pleased" with the compromise bill, said Charilyn Cowan of the National Governors' Association. "There has been a real recognition in Congress of the fiscal realities that most states are facing."
Ms. Cowan added that the bill would accomplish the administration's objective of increasing overall transportation spending by all levels of government through the combination of its matching share formula and the significant increase in projects that would be authorized by the bill.
The formula adopted by the 92 House and Senate conferees, in providing a uniform percentage for all transportation projects, would increase federal funding for urban and rural highways from 75%, but reduce the 90% federal share now received for some highway projects. Bridges and mass transit projects already receive 80% federal funding, she said.
Both the gas tax extension and the funding formula provisions provoked veto threats from the White House when they were included in earlier House and Senate versions of the bill. The administration also strongly objected to the overall large funding levels adopted from the House bill, which would give $119 billion to highways and bridges and $32 billion to mass transit project. It had recommended providing only $105 billion overall for the programs.
Partly to assuage administration concerns, the conferees reduced to 75% the federal matching share for the bill's highway demonstration projects. Those projects, when included in the House version of the bill, had drawn much press attention and criticism.
A Transportation Department official, asking not to be identified, said the conferees' decision to allocate less money to such projects was "a good sign." He also said the department was pleased with another decision by the conferees to set aside $40 billion to establish a National Highway System, as sought by President Bush.
It was not clear yesterday, however, whether these modifications to the House and Senate bills would be enough to win the administration's overall acceptance. Office of Management and Budget officials -- who had raised the most vehement objections to earlier funding provisions -- yesterday said not enough details were yet known to pass judgment on the compromise.