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$216-Billion Road, Mass Transit Bill OKd by Congress

Transportation: California will get $20 billion, add 170,000 jobs over six years. Measure, which Clinton plans to sign, is largest public works program in U.S. history.

May 23, 1998|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Congress gave final approval Friday to a $216-billion highway and mass transit bill that would funnel as much as $20 billion to California and create some 170,000 jobs throughout the state in the next six years.

The transportation bill--the largest public works program in U.S. history--was painstakingly negotiated in recent weeks by lawmakers working assiduously to reconcile differing House and Senate versions of the legislation.

"This bill is going to alleviate traffic, fill potholes and make our roads safer," declared Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), who shepherded the measure through final enactment as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

With the decades-old federal budget deficit having all but disappeared--and a huge budget surplus looming--critics charged that negotiations over the bill turned into an undisguised money-grab by lawmakers vying to bring home pork projects in an election year.

But proponents argued that much of the spending would go for truly needed projects--citing, as one example, the $700 million appropriated to repair and maintain border crossings, ports of entry and international trade corridors along U.S. borders.

"This bill is good for America and for California," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), one of the negotiators. She said the legislation will ensure "a well-maintained, more efficient transportation" system for the state.

President Clinton said he plans to sign the measure into law, adding that the projects it will help build will "keep our country strong and vibrant."

The bill--the last major piece of business handled by Congress before it adjourned until early June--passed the Senate, 88 to 5, with both Boxer and California's other senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, supporting it. It was approved by the House, 297 to 86.

The bill's final price tag over its six-year authorization period: $41.3 billion for mass transit and $173 billion for highways.

In addition, the legislation contains $2 billion specifically for highway safety. According to Shuster, nearly one in three car fatalities can be attributed to poor road conditions. "Widening a two-lane road by an extra 2 feet can cut fatal crashes by 23%," he said.

According to congressional aides, the bill includes $135 million for work related to Los Angeles County's much-touted Alameda Corridor Project, the 20-mile rail link that aims to speed the movement of goods from the area's ports to downtown Los Angeles.

The measure funds a raft of other projects--large and small--in Los Angeles County, as it does for other parts of the country.

One provision would allow states to let single-occupant vehicles use high-occupancy vehicle lanes if they run on natural gas or electricity.

But notably missing is a provision to strong-arm states into adopting a national drunken-driving standard of .08% blood alcohol content--a standard already in place in California and 14 other states. States with a higher level for drunken driving would have faced the loss of federal funds.

The Senate had voted for the provision, which also enjoyed White House backing. But the House would not go along and the proposal was dropped during the conferees' negotiations amid intensive lobbying by the liquor and restaurant industries.

Environmental groups also were unhappy with the final product, saying the bill would hamper efforts to reduce air pollution, especially in the national parks. In a statement Friday, 13 environmental groups--including the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society--called on Clinton to veto the bill.

But the nation's governors, eager to begin transportation construction projects, hailed the legislation's final approval.

"Governors applaud the conferees for providing significant increases in transportation funding consistent with the balanced budget agreement," said a statement by Ohio Gov. George V. Voinovich, who chairs the National Governors Assn.

The bill's $216-billion total dwarfs by tens of billions of dollars the original spending level set for it by last year's balanced budget agreement and it amounts to breath-taking testament to Congress' collective, long-deferred impulse to spend after years of penny-pinching.

Lawmakers made up for some of that difference by taking $15 billion from a program that treats veterans with smoking-related illnesses.

The price tag is a 46% increase over the previous, six-year transportation funding bill. For California, the increased spending would amount to $754 million per year, according to Boxer.

One of the legislation's most contentious elements pertained to the funding formula by which states are allotted rates of return for the federal gasoline tax funds they contribute to the federal highway fund.

The final measure would guarantee all states a minimum return of 90.5 cents for every dollar sent to Washington. For California, that is a significant improvement from the 86 cents on the dollar it got back under the previous law.

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