WASHINGTON B — WASHINGTON -- Congress has begun struggling with a question millions of commuters ponder every day: whether it makes more sense to travel by car, bus or rail.
For decades, federal policy has favored the automobile. But a debate on Capitol Hill over the nation's new five-year highway program has turned into a surprising referendum on the future of transportation in America.
A bipartisan group of key senators is sponsoring a highway bill that would make revolutionary changes in transportation policy. In effect, the bill declares an end to a 35-year era of highway building, perhaps the most massive sustained public works effort in history.
"We have finished the highway structure of America," said Sen. Daniel Moynihan, D-N.Y., a principal sponsor. "We are about to enter a new era."
Instead of new highways, the bill emphasizes environmental concerns and would give states unprecedented freedom to use $45 billion, half of all federal highway spending, for other transportation projects -- everything from mass transit to installing sidewalk bicycle racks.
But the Bush administration also has a highway bill, and the president is not as ready to retire the cement mixers. Bush calls for expanding the federal role to create a 150,000-mile network of "highways of national significance," which would include the Interstate system and 110,000 miles of upgraded primary roads.
Both bills emphasize the maintenance of existing roads, now that the Interstate system is more than 99 percent complete. But the $87 billion Bush plan would expand many highways and build new roads to complete its network.
Transit supporters believe the spending flexibility in the Senate bill will allow cities to concentrate on transit systems to cut down highway congestion.
"We're very pleased to see Mr. Moynihan and other sponsors open up what has been, in the past, the sacrosanct money for highways," said Bruce Freid, head of Transit Now, an advocacy group.
But many of the groups in the traditional highway lobby -- construction companies, trucking associations and industry groups -- recoil at the Senate bill's spending flexibility.
The House has yet to develop its version of the highway bill. But Rep. Robert Roe, D-N.J., chairman of the Public Works Committee, has focused on what he considers the need for more money for highways.