WASHINGTON -- A $153 billion highway bill drafted by House leaders, like the bill passed by the Senate last week, proposes an 80% federal funding share for most highway and mass transit projects and would give state and local governments greater flexibility, Rep. Norman Mineta said yesterday.

"We will propose a level playing field," when the five-year bill is formally introduced in the second week of July, the California Democrat told the American Road and Transportation Builders Association yesterday. Rep. Mineta is chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee's surface transportation subcommittee.

"No longer will federal policy effectively dictate what gets built in this country by manipulating matching formulas," he said. "That's why I'm proposing a minimum 80% federal share for all qualifying projects."

The bill's uniform 80% federal matching share would apply to all transportation projects except interstate highways, which would continue to receive 90% funding, he said. That means mass transit, as well as urban and rural roads, among others, would receive more federal funding, while secondary roads would get somewhat less.

The National Governors' Association, along with the National League of Cities and other groups, has endorsed the idea of a uniform 80% federal funding share, noting that it roughly maintains the federal government's overall contribution to transportation spending at current levels.

The 80% policy has been a bone of contention with the Bush administration, however, which proposed lowering federal funding for most projects to between 60% to 75% in a bid to force more state and local spending and bond issuance for transportation projects. The White House cited the funding share issue earlier this month as a possible reason for vetoing the Senate bill.

"The administration would have the federal government shift all sorts of responsibilities out of Washington," Rep. Mineta said. "All I have to do is put on my old mayor's hat to know that's a bad idea when I hear it. States and localities will not become a dumping ground for programs that the federal government doesn't want to pay for all of the sudden," he said.

Like the Senate bill, the House bill also will give state and local governments much greater flexibility to plan projects that meet their transportation needs and comply with the Clean Air Act's auto emissions requirements, he said. And it will establish and fund a new National Highway System of around 150,000 miles of priority highways.

Rep. Mineta confirmed that the House bill will depart from the Senate bill in a major way by proposing to fund an additional $33 billion of highway and mass transit projects over the next five years by increasing the 15 cent federal gasoline tax another 5 cents.

The increased funding would be spent on a variety of so-called demonstration projects. It also has been suggested by committee members as a source of funds to pay for a new state infrastructure revolving fund program, as well as proposals easing the tax-exempt bond curbs on infrastructure bonds.

Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, also appeared at the road builders' conference. He warned that the gas tax increase may not be accepted by Senate conferees over the highway bill unless President Bush supports it. Sen. Mitchell said he will be appointing the Senate conferees soon and that he intends to be one of them.

"The President has made what I think is a phony campaign pledge and has said he won't break it again" after last year's $150 billion tax increase, he said. "If the President is going to veto it, I won't ask members of the Senate to engage in a meaningless exercise ... and get out on a limb only to have the President saw it off."

So far, the White House has been silent on the tax increase proposal. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, R-Ark., and Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., who helped draft the House bill, met with White House officials twice this month to discuss the idea and received a "noncommittal" response, Rep. Mineta said.

Many House Republicans, as well as senators, have been waiting to see the position taken by the President before voicing support for the bill.

Sen. John Breaux, D-La., a member of the Senate Finance Committee, told the road builders that he thought committee members and the public would be "supportive" of a gas tax increase if it is used wisely to improve the roads.

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