The House of Representatives has produced a seriously flawed transportation bill that cannot compare with the forward-looking bill approved this summer by the Senate. Unless House members in conference this weekend accept aspects of the Senate's superior version, this bill seems headed for a certain presidential veto.
Both bills offer the most sweeping changes in transportation funding in 35 years. But with the interstate highway system nearing completion, now is the time for a new approach in which the emphasis shifts to repairing existing roads and promoting mass transit alternatives. Yet the House version continues the highway-expansion syndrome, and laces it with plenty of big-money pork-barrel politics.
Happily, House leaders abandoned their earlier insistence on an unpopular 5-cent gas tax increase that President Bush said he would veto. Unhappily, congressmen persist in trying to pour most of the $151 billion in their bill into costly new road projects. Even worse, congressmen earmarked $5.4 billion for purely political purposes -- 489 "special projects" sprinkled liberally among congressional districts to ensure support. The prime offender, not surprisingly, was Rep. Robert Roe, chairman of the Public Works Committee, who slipped in a project for his New Jersey district that would be immune from environmental impact studies and federal contract procedures.
Such shenanigans no longer pass muster with voters fed up with Washington's irresponsible spending habits. Conferees must cut the pork out of this bill and tilt the measure in favor of the Senate plan that stresses more mass-transit funding and greater flexibility for the states on how the money will be spent. Congress ought not to dally. This re-authorization bill would pump tens of billions of dollars in construction funds into the nation's sagging economy. A compromise transportation plan, one that the president can sign, should be made a top congressional priority.