WASHINGTON - The House is expected to act on legislation tomorrow that would create a national highway system and authorize the spending of $2 billion over three years for selected highway, bridge, and transit projects.

Of the $1.4 billion earmarked in the bill for highways and bridges, more than $500 million would come from existing funds - either through the cancellation of old projects or from projects that cost less than anticipated.

The other $900 million would come from annual appropriations of no more than $300 million a year.

The measure would also authorize new transit projects to receive more than $600 million from cancelled projects.

The bill gives top funding priority to roughly 160,000 miles of highways that Congress was required to designate as a national highway system under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, said Norman Y. Mineta, D-Calif., chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee.

The act approved 151 billion in highway and mass transit funding for fiscal 1992 through fiscal 1997, or roughly $25 billion annually.

The spending levels set for the surface transportation law were the highest ever for infrastructure projects. Bond analysts at the time said they expected an increase of billions of dollars in municipal bond issues.

But Congress didn't fully fund the bill, and still hasn't, a bond lawyer said.

Any new funding for highway infrastructure "will have some positive effect [on the bond market], but it is really a drop in the bucket for what is and was needed at the time [the highway bill] was passed," said Roger Davis, an attorney with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.

The two budgets offered by the Clinton Administration fully fund the highway portion of the surface transportation law, said Frank Shafroth, chief lobbyist for the National League of Cities. The funding is 20% higher than in the final year of the Bush Administration, he said.

A major reason for the current legislation, Mineta said, is to revisit the 1991 surface transportation bill in mid-course to address corrections that need to be made in the law. The national highway bill includes some technical corrections and minor policy changes, as well as the "reprogramming" of certain funding, he said.

Mineta's committee approved the bill last week. In the Senate, the Environment and Public Works Committee plans to introduce a bill by the end of the week and will schedule hearings and a markup for midsummer, a committee staff member said.

The House version could run into some road blocks because it includes some 300 specific programs that a Senate staff member termed "demonstrations and pork." The Senate intends to approve a "clean bill" that may include no funding beyond what has already been covered by the 1991 surface transportation bill, the Senate staff member said.

"The Senate complaint is unjustified," said Eric Federing, communications director for the House Public Works and Transportation Committee. The House selected the projects after listening to more than 200 witnesses at public hearings, Federing said. The $900 million iin the House bill is the result of "regularizing a process," he said.

The appropriations committees regularly allocate about $300 million annually to highway infrastructure programs with no hearing process. In the past, the first time anyone knew where the money was going was when the bill was made public, Federing said. To allow for public scrutiny, the Public Works Committee held hearings before designating where the money would be spent, he said.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.