Back in June, the Senate reversed four decades of a no-choicehighway-building policy by passing a five-year, $123-billion Surface Transportation Act that seemed headed to new, higher ground.
The bill stressed efficient transportation over mindless spending. expanded mass transit, pedestrian, bicycle and congestion-management options. It said coherent land-use planning was important. It gave states and metropolitan areas new flexibility to control transportation spending in ways that make sense for their areas.
It all seemed to be too good to be true. And it turns out it was.
On the House side, powerful Public Works Committee members just couldn't be restrained from packing the nation's big new transportation bill, first of the post-Interstate era, with pork-barrel projects.
They invited other House members to join the feeding frenzy. Then they weighed the bill down with a 5-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase, chiefly to pay for their pet projects.
That prompted the Transportation Secretary, Samuel Skinner, to declare: ''We do not need to pluck another nickel from our pockets to pave America with pork.'' A presidential veto was threatened, due to the new tax. Action was put off until Congress reassembles this month.
But even before the committee-approved House bill has reached the floor, there's fear of stalemate and talk of Congress passing instead a one-year reauthorization of current federal transportation spending. New York's Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., chief architect of the more imaginative Senate measure, is dead set against that:
''There will be no short-term reauthorization. . . . With the Interstate system finished, there is no absolute need for a federal highway program.''
The standoff could be resolved by the House agreeing to the measure the Senate passed, 91 to 7. But that means House members forsaking the 500-plus ''demonstration projects,'' to cost about $11 billion, which they stuffed into their bill.
It features $287 million in projects for the Pennsylvania district of Rep. Bud Shuster, second-ranking Republican on the House Public Works Committee. The chairman, New Jersey Democrat Robert Roe, would get $225 million to finish a Passaic County highway, plus $14.2 million to elevate 14 bridges.
The political payoff list rolls on and on -- and House members have already flooded their districts with press releases hailing their great ''bring-home-the-bacon'' triumphs.
What's appalling is that in the interests of pork-barreling, the House not only would fleece the taxpayer with an added gas tax but would vitiate the Senate bill's new features of state and local decision-making, plus its special focus on urban areas and environmental issues.
''You get as much productivity out the Senate bill without a tax as you do out the House with a tax,'' notes David Burwell, president of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and a leading member of the activist Surface Transportation Policy Project.
The House bill does make a bow to increased state-local planning and provides billions more for mass transit than Mr. Bush originally proposed. But its five-year cost is $30.5 billion more than the Senate measure and it ends up providing $6 billion less for flexible funding to let metropolitan areas decide their own transit priorities.
The House version is skewed toward highways, dedicating $40 billion over five years for a big new national system. The Senate agreed to only $7.9 billion for the new national highway system, and only to avoid a veto by President Bush, who's for big new roads.
What we're seeing is how incumbent-oriented congressional politics so easily make common cause with special interests like the highway lobby, and so easily eclipse individual state and city needs, and the environment.
Some House members seem openly contemptuous of the idea that states should be given full discretion in deciding their own transportation priorities. ''It's baloney,'' says Representative Shuster, to believe that ''state governments have been anointed from on high,'' that only they ''have the ability and purity to identify the real needs.''
Great, one can reply, but why should a single congressman like Mr. Shuster have the clout to bill national taxpayers for a quarter-billion dollars worth of road projects in his district? Who says that's where the most need exists?
The American Road and Transportation Builders Association knew which side its bread was buttered on when it warned: ''If the Moynihan legislation could go through unchanged, half the ability of an individual member to influence approval of these kinds of projects would go out the window.''
The struggle is a metaphor for the nation's increasing distrust of a Congress that's forever passing programs, failing to monitor them well, flunking the budget-balancing test and then trying to bribe the home folks with pork-barrel goodies.
State and local officials are no angels either. But they do seem to lack the overweening pride that comes with semi-permanent congressional incumbency with its constant accumulation of new national debt.
State and metropolitan officials are the ones we expect to make the fine-line, balancing judgments about which kinds of roads and transit facilities are most needed, which make the best use of scarce dollars and which are friendliest to the environment.
It's high time congressmen got out of the way, to let the state and local folks do their job.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.