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The Nation

All Roads Lead to This Congressman

Alaska's Don Young can pave the way or block projects. His next battle could be with Bush over a generous highway bill and a gas tax hike.

March 02, 2004|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Rep. Don Young hails from an Alaska village with no paved roads or stop lights. But if you want to solve your traffic problems, he's the man to see.

As chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Young is one of the handful of lawmakers who make the legislative machinery turn. He has established himself as the godfather of highway projects, the one who grants projects to his friends and stiffs his enemies.

Together, lawmakers have asked Young for 5,300 projects, from a carpool lane on the San Diego Freeway to a recreational trail in Vermont. Young picks and chooses as he assembles a highway bill with a target cost of $375 billion over six years.

Fellow Republican Rep. Marilyn N. Musgrave made several of the requests on Young's list. But she doesn't expect any to be granted. A freshman from Colorado, unschooled in the ways of Washington, she took on Young, a 30-year veteran, over the federal gasoline tax.

Young supports an increase in the tax to pay for more highway projects. Musgrave, whose eastern Colorado district consumes a lot of gasoline, opposes it. Last year she sought her colleagues' signatures on a letter to that effect. Young promptly sought her out on the House floor.

"I have never had a man talk to me the way Mr. Young talked to me," Musgrave said later.

A Young aide explained that the chairman wanted to let the congresswoman know that it seemed hypocritical to request funding for highway projects without supporting a way to pay for them. Now, Musgrave can't get the Transportation Committee staff to return her calls.

With a full beard and a ready scowl, Young, 70, looks the part of a congressman from the Alaska frontier -- though he was born in Central California. His office is decorated with big-game trophies -- a 10-foot-long bearskin hangs on the wall behind the front desk. That isn't Young's bear, though. "I caught one bigger than that," he said.

As chairman of the Transportation Committee, the onetime riverboat captain dispenses a form of frontier justice. "I have the pencil," he said in a speech last year, "... and I can erase something very quickly if things don't go the way I'd like."

This year, he has his pencil poised over the highway bill. The Senate last month passed a $318-billion version of the bill -- $57 billion smaller than the measure Young is preparing for his committee to vote on, probably early this month.

Both versions of the transportation bill are much larger than the $256 billion that President Bush calls his limit, and the president has threatened to make the highway bill the first veto of his presidency.

Unfazed, Young is touring the country, urging voters to tell their representatives in Congress to support his gasoline tax and his generous menu of highway projects.

That mission recently brought him to Arizona, where Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, a deficit hawk, has criticized the transportation bill's price tag. Flake acknowledged that he was feeling political heat from the chairman for standing up to him.

"He's trotting all around the country to get transportation officials and industry groups excited about this big bill, and saying, 'But for your congressman, we could have this.' Every member is getting pressure from industry groups and transportation officials to support it."

Most of the money in the highway bill is divided among the states according to a mathematical formula, and state officials determine how to spend that money. But it is Young who is the chief architect of the bill, helping shape the formula and deciding how much money goes for highways, mass transit, recreational trails, bridges and other projects.

A portion of the bill sets aside money -- estimated at about $10 billion -- for lawmakers' pet projects. Young plays a critical role in deciding how the Republican share of that money will be allocated. His favorite recipients: Transportation Committee members, party leaders, other committee chairmen -- and anyone who has supported his gasoline tax increase.

One mark Young has already left on the bill is its name. A congressional aide said he named it the Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users so that its initials, TEA-LU, would include the name of his wife, Lu.

Concerns in Washington about the rapidly growing deficit only complicate Young's job. And Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense pointed out that with his proposed tax increase, Young is "swimming against the political tide of his own party."

Born and reared in a farm town about 60 miles north of Sacramento, Young joined the Teamsters as a teenager while working at a peach cannery. He holds an associate degree from Yuba Junior College and a bachelor's degree from Chico State College.

Young moved to Alaska in 1959, after reading Jack London's "The Call of the Wild." He worked as a teacher, then won election to the City Council of Fort Yukon, a village of about 700 people a few miles inside the Arctic Circle, where he still owns a home.

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