Senators' dispute over funding stalls transportation bill

June 14, 1991|By Robert W. Stewart | Robert W. Stewart,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- An attempt by the Senate to pass a landmark transportation bill dissolved early today as an acrimonious fight broke out over state shares of billions of dollars in federal aid for highways and mass transit systems.

The failure to settle on a compromise allocation plan that would have permitted Senate passage of the bill clearly angered the measure's principal author, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y.

"Those who think they will get more by being difficult may get nothing. Nothing," Mr. Moynihan said. "Which is what they'll deserve."

The Senate may take up the legislation again today.

The transportation bill would earmark less money for highways and allow more spending for mass transit and, in the process, grant states unprecedented authority to spend federal aid as they see fit.

The plan, the first major overhaul of federaltransportation legislation in 35 years, calls for spending at least $115 billion through fiscal 1996 -- a $35 billion increase over transportation spending from 1986 through 1991. But even its supporters say that the bill will not provide enough money to repair the deteriorating U.S. road network.

"The . . . funding level pales in comparison to our transportation and infrastructure needs," Sen. Steve Symms, R-Idaho, one of the measure's chief sponsors, said when debate began Tuesday.

The Senate bill would scrap the maze of road-building programs created by Congress in 1956 to finance construction of the 42,800-mile interstate highway system, which is now all but complete, and substitute programs that would gives states far greater authority to shift funds from highway to mass transit projects. It would also require states to adopt more aggressive planning programs.

Current highway and mass transit legislation expires on Sept. 30.

The issue that snagged the bill's progress early today involves the complex, antiquated formulas used to allocate the billions of dollars from the federal gasoline tax.

Senators from so-called donor states, led by Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., have argued that the Senate should increase aid to their states. Donor states are those that traditionally contribute more to the federal highway trust fund, through the gasoline tax, than they receive in aid.

Lawmakers from less populated but geographically large Western states objected to Mr. Warner's plan to increase the guaranteed minimumreturn from the current level of 85 percent to 90 percent. They argued that the cost to maintain their interstate and other federally aided highways was much greater than their motorists could pay in gas taxes.

Mr. Moynihan and Mr. Warner appeared to be on the verge of a compromise last night. But the deal fell through when donor-state senators could not agree on a proposal that would have provided their states with an additional $4.1 billion in aid over five years. The senators are expected to continue to meet privately to seek a resolution.

The House has not yet acted on a transportation bill. Leaders of the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation are expected to disclose their proposal after the July 4 recess. The House measure is expected to call for substantially higher spending.

The Bush administration last winter announced its own transportation initiative, which calls for spending $105 billion over five years. The administration proposal includes significant increases in the matching shares paid by the states and more tightly restricts their ability to shift funds.

The Senate legislation would dramatically alter the way the federal government parcels out billions of dollars in aid for highways, bridges, bus lines and rail systems. The measure emphasizes cutting traffic congestion without embarking on massive new road-building projects.

One major obstacle to passage was resolved yesterday when Mr. Moynihan agreed to a plan that would create a 184,000-mile National Highway System, including the interstate network, that would receive a minimum of $22 billion in aid over the five-year life of the bill.

The system is the centerpiece of the administration's plan, and Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner had said he would recommend a veto if it were omitted.

Under this part of the bill, Maryland would provide matching funds for projects including the widening and upgrading of U.S. 50, the widening of Interstate 95 to eight lanes between the Beltway and Joppatowne, and the construction of new interchanges on Interstate 83 to relieve congestion, according to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md.

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