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A SigAlert on the Highway Bill : Dispute between House, Senate chairmen risks billions in funding

October 03, 1994

A fight between Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has bottled up billions in national highway funding for what looks to be the remainder of the congressional session. But that could be the least of the problem.

If allowed to drag on past the Sept. 30, 1995, funding deadline, the skirmish could end up costing the 50 states $6.5 billion, and California as much as $546 million. The result would not only be lost jobs but lost opportunities to cut freeway congestion and pollution, save fuel and increase the nation's economic viability by improving our transportation infrastructure. That need not happen.

Mineta believes the government should directly fund specific projects. Baucus wants states to choose worthy projects by themselves. Both positions have merit. But the two lawmakers, chairs of the House and Senate Public Works committees, respectively, should put aside their philosophical differences and get down to negotiating the real issue: money.

As it now stands, the House appropriation for the national highway system bill, which passed 412 to 12, contains funding for special transportation projects. Forty of these, including Los Angeles' Alameda Corridor and upgrades for parts of the I-5, I-15 and 710 freeways, are in California.

Some legislators, especially those from smaller states, argue that funding special projects reduces the national pool of highway money and ultimately hurts their states. But delaying final action on funding much longer stands to hurt every state. Especially if Congress must go back to the drawing board next year.

Baucus and Mineta agree that Congress should pass legislation that designates money for the nation's most heavily traveled roads. They agree there's a need to modernize and otherwise improve 159,000 miles of the roads that make up the national highway system. Now they must agree on how to fund it.

All motorists pay into the massive national highway trust fund through gas taxes and other fees. They deserve a smooth ride from Congress, not gridlock. And breaking gridlock is an outcome that's in the best interests of both California and Montana--and the rest of the nation.

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