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Senate Wields Budget Ax but Metro Rail Funds Survive

October 24, 1985|RICH CONNELL | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Struggling to meet budget spending targets, the Senate on Wednesday approved a $9.9-billion 1986 transportation appropriations bill that preserved funds for the proposed Los Angeles Metro Rail subway but made large cuts in the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Coast Guard.

The bill, which now goes to a two-house conference committee to resolve differences with a House-approved version, includes about $84 million in 1986 financing for the first 4.4-mile section of the proposed subway. It also includes language rejecting an effort by the Reagan Administration, which opposes new commuter rail projects, to postpone disbursement of an additional $129 million previously approved by Congress.

The bill also contains good news for Los Angeles County bus riders because it includes only a minor reduction in aid to local transit systems, meaning fare hikes or service cutbacks being studied by the Southern California Rapid Transit District probably will not have to be made at the end of the year.

The Senate rejected an attempt to abolish Amtrak by cutting off its proposed $616-million subsidy for next year.

$1 Billion Below House Version

The Senate bill is nearly $1 billion below the House-passed version and nearly $2 billion below the 1985 transportation appropriation.

A group of senators led by Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) tried unsuccessfully to restore some of the $500 million in cutbacks the bill includes for two agencies--the FAA, which has been the focus of attention recently because of a series of airliner crashes, and the Coast Guard, which has assumed a major role in the government's war on drug smuggling.

Kassebaum and her allies argued that backers of the bill were "confining the misery" of budget cuts to two high-profile agencies, while protecting "some very controversial" programs--an apparent reference to mass transit projects opposed by the Administration.

Sen. Mark Andrews (R-N.D.), the floor manager for the bill, called the Kassebaum amendment "an attack" on mass transit and other programs. He acknowledged that concentrating cuts on the Coast Guard and the FAA was part of a strategy to build congressional and Administration support to exceed the $9.9-billion transportation spending outlay, which he called "wrong-headed."

Across-the-Board Cut

Kassebaum said that approach was "not responsible" and instead called for a 6% across-the-board cut in the transportation bill--a reduction that would have meant a loss of several million dollars in Metro Rail funding and bus subsidies for Los Angeles.

California Sens. Alan Cranston, a Democrat, and Pete Wilson, a Republican, were among those voting down the amendment. Both expressed hope that additional funds can be found for the FAA and Coast Guard when Senate and House conferees consider the measure. A 6% across-the-board cut would have "underfunded the requirements of mass transit," said Wilson, a Metro Rail supporter.

Noting that the $84 million is far below what the RTD wants, Cranston said: "The Los Angeles Metro Rail is not getting what it needs. I didn't want to see further cuts."

After the Kassebaum amendment was defeated, a smaller 1.6% across-the-board cut in the bill was made to bring the overall total into compliance with previously approved spending targets. In terms of Metro Rail, there will be two key issues when House and Senate conferees draft the final version of the bill in meetings expected to begin within the next few weeks.

RTD officials want to boost the Senate's $84-million, 1986 appropriation for the project closer to the House figure of $117 million. More importantly, they want the final bill to include a guarantee that the full $429 million in federal funds needed to complete the project will be available. The first phase of Metro Rail is to run from Union Station to Alvarado Street.

Opposes Full Funding

Language ordering the Urban Mass Transportation Administration to enter into a so-called full-funding contract is in the House version, but was excluded from the Senate version. Andrews, who chairs the Senate appropriation transportation subcommittee, has said he strongly opposes the full-funding language--which would apply to Los Angeles, Seattle and Miami--because it reduces Congress' funding options in future years and gives these cities preferential treatment.

But the Senate bill, as amended Wednesday, orders the Administration to release transit construction funds it has been withholding. Earlier this month, the Administration notified Congress that it intended to postpone spending $223 million for Metro Rail and projects in several other cities.

The deferral notice requires action by both houses to overturn it. It now appears likely that will happen with the Senate language being incorporated into the final transportation bill.

Underground Gas Peril

The Senate bill also does not include language requiring the second phase of the subway to be rerouted to avoid potentially hazardous underground methane gas pockets around the city's Fairfax District. The House included that requirement at the urging of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who has raised questions about the safety of the tunneling project. Congressional sources in both houses said that requirement will probably be in the final bill.

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