WASHINGTON — The House, in an emotional showdown between the West and East, agreed Wednesday by a narrow margin to allow states to raise the speed limit to 65 m.p.h. on rural interstate highways.
The controversial measure, vigorously endorsed by congressmen from sprawling Western states but condemned by urban lawmakers who fear a sharp rise in highway fatalities, was approved on a vote of 217 to 206 and becomes part of an $87-billion highway and mass transit financing bill also passed on the House floor Wednesday.
Included in the five-year transportation package are funds to complete the national interstate highway system, a project that began in 1954 and is by far the biggest public works project of all time. Also authorized are $17.9 billion in funds for mass transit projects.
Senate Approval Seen
The legislation is expected to sail through the Senate, which approved the same speed limit measure by a 2-1 margin earlier this year. Its fate at the White House is uncertain, however, because the President is opposed to several high-ticket measures in the transportation package, although he supports the higher speed limit.
On the House floor, supporters of the speed limit plan were jubilant, cheering and applauding when the close vote was final.
They called it a victory for states' rights. "We're bringing some sanity to the laws of America," exclaimed Rep. Kenneth J. Gray (D-Ill.).
But a dejected Rep. James J. Howard (D-N.J.), often called the father of the 55-m.p.h. speed limit because he sponsored the legislation 13 years ago, warned that the measure could cost thousands of American lives in traffic accidents.
"Are we willing to kill and maim thousands of people just so we can have one extra minute a day? Because that's what we're doing," said the chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, who argues that one minute is all the average driver will save daily by driving 65 m.p.h.
Scores Western Lawmakers
Howard, in remarks to reporters just minutes after the House tally, said the vote also demonstrates that Western congressmen oppose the federal government.
"They're against the federal government on everything," he said. "I don't know why they stay in the Union."
Advisers to the President were said Wednesday to be advising him to veto the bill, despite his backing for the speed limit plan. But key House members expressed confidence Wednesday that they have the votes to override a veto.
A vote to override would be harder to come by in the Senate, although senators said Wednesday that House approval of the speed limit measure--which the Senate strongly backs--gives the Senate a strong incentive.
The President, who is opposed to extensive additional funding for mass transit, warned Congress in January that he would veto any highway and transit bill whose price tag exceeds $77 billion. The cost of the current measure is estimated at between $80 billion and $90 billion.
"I'm as big a Ronald Reagan supporter as there is," said Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah), a prime supporter of the faster speed, "but if he vetoes it, I'm overriding it."
Howard predicted, however, that Reagan's threatened veto is just a bluff. "I've been in Congress for 23 years and every highway bill has been threatened with a veto. None has."
But after thinking for a moment, he added: "Anyone who would veto the Clean Water Act (as Reagan did) would veto anything."
The measure would allow states to vote on whether to raise the speed limit as high as 65 m.p.h. on sections of interstate highways that are not near cities of more than 50,000 population.
Deukmejian Backs Bill
In California, state officials said it was too early to predict how the state Legislature would respond if the measure becomes law. However, Gov. George Deukmejian has endorsed raising the limit. "We're delighted. That's what we'd been supporting," California Transportation Director John Geoghegan said late Wednesday.
Besides giving the states the speed limit latitude, the transportation bill, devised by House-Senate conferees and approved by the full House, authorizes for California money to complete the Century Freeway, add lanes on the Harbor Freeway from downtown Los Angeles to San Pedro, repair roads in the Long Beach Harbor and Ontario airport areas, and widen the Sepulveda tunnel near Los Angeles International Airport to avoid a potential bottleneck when the Century Freeway is completed.
And in one of the bill's most controversial provisions--one the Reagan Administration has said repeatedly that it opposes--$870 million in funds are authorized to finish the inaugural nine miles of the controversial Los Angeles Metro Rail subway. A separate vote appropriating the money is necessary, but supporters said that should be a routine process.
Had the 65-m.p.h. limit failed in the House, it would have died, although the rest of the highway bill would have been unaffected.