WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators agreed Tuesday to let the House vote next week on whether to allow the states to raise the speed limit on rural interstate highways, a development that virtually assures quick passage of a multibillion-dollar highway and mass transit financing bill.
The controversial speed limit amendment was chiefly responsible for the defeat of legislation authorizing road-building funds last year. It threatened to do the same this year and jeopardize thousands of highway projects. In California alone, officials have estimated that 22,000 jobs and $500 million in construction projects would be disrupted if federal funds were delayed later than April 1.
In a surprise move Tuesday morning, Rep. James J. Howard (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee and sponsor of the original 55 m.p.h. legislation, offered to let the full House vote on the issue separately. This cleared the way for highway funds to be released.
Still Opposes Change
"I do not want to be part of any legislation that results in killing people on the highways," Howard said, explaining that he will continue to fight a higher speed limit. "I do, however, believe that it is fair to allow the House to vote on the Senate (speed limit) proposal in a straight up-or-down vote."
All that remains is for House and Senate conferees to attach final price tags to each part of the financing bill and work out the formulas for distributing the federal aid, a process that is expected to be finished by Monday.
To Southern California, the measure means money for major projects such as the Century Freeway, planned bus or rail lane additions to the Harbor Freeway from downtown Los Angeles to San Pedro and the Los Angeles Metro Rail system.
Howard's concession on the speed limit vote came as a surprise even to the other House negotiators on the highway bill, and it delighted Sen. Steven D. Symms, (R-Ida.), who has led the congressional charge to return authority over speed limits to the states. A March 18 House vote has been scheduled on Symms' proposal to let the states decide whether to raise the limit on rural interstates to 65 m.p.h.
Passage Not Certain
Whether the House will pass the amendment is uncertain, however. A similar measure lost by 20 votes last year, but the November elections brought 50 new members into the House and President Reagan, California Gov. George Deukmejian and other governors have announced their support of a higher limit.
Recent studies conducted by the American Automobile Assn. and other groups have found public support for the 55 m.p.h. speed limit fading--and not just in the West and Midwest, where towns and cities often are separated by vast expanses of open country.
Supporters of the lower speed insist that while fuel economy is no longer as crucial as it was at the time the limit was lowered 13 years ago, the safety factor is. They credit the 55 m.p.h. maximum with saving more than 26,000 lives.
"In my 23 years in Congress, nothing has given me more satisfaction than knowing that a bill I sponsored has saved the lives of tens of thousands of people," Howard said. He said he would be devastated if the speed limit measure passes.
If it does pass, the amendment will be part of the highway bill. If it fails, the amendment dies but the highway bill will be unaffected.
Billboard Issue Removed
Congressional negotiators also detached a "highway beautification" amendment from the bill Tuesday, after they decided against undertaking reform of billboard laws with the current legislation.
The final price tag for the highway and mass transit authorization bill has not yet been set. An aide to one conferee, California Rep. Glenn M. Anderson (D-San Pedro), estimated that the compromise bill currently provides for $80 billion to $90 billion in highway construction and repair money over five years. The original House proposal weighed in at $91.6 billion, while the Senate proposal called for $65.4 billion over four years.
The Reagan Administration has threatened to veto the bill if it exceeds $77 billion.