House agrees to repeal 55 mph national speed limit Bill also would loosen variety of highway rules

Clinton OK uncertain


WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives yesterday approved a compromise bill that would repeal the national speed limit, establish a national highway system and free states from a generation of federal regulations, including motorcycle helmet requirements, putting metric information on road signs and a billboard ban on scenic highways.

The measure was approved in the House on a voice vote. The Senate passed the bill Friday, 80-16.

The bill would loosen Washington's control over a number of transportation issues. But the most dramatic portion of the bill is the repeal of the 21-year-old federal law that set the national speed limit at 55 miles an hour. A repeal would allow each state to set any speed limit it wanted, or no speed limit at all, on all vehicles, including heavy trucks.

At the same time, it would introduce tighter restrictions on other matters, requiring states, for example, to enact and enforce laws making it illegal for drivers under the legal drinking age of 21 to drive with a blood-alcohol level of 0.02 percent or higher.

States would have three years to enact such laws or lose 5 percent of their federal highway grants starting in the 1999 fiscal year and 10 percent in each succeeding year.

Yesterday's vote capped a four-year effort to designate 161,000 miles of highways in the United States and Puerto Rico as the National Highway System. It would unite interstate highways, major state roadways, seaports, airports and public transportation systems. The goal is to provide for uniform standards and to build a transportation network to serve both civilian and military needs.

About 75 percent of the proposed highway network would be in the countryside, and 25 percent would be in urban areas.

Critics have derided the abandonment of a national speed limit as "the pedal to the metal" bill and argued that it would lead to more highway accidents.

Opposition to the bill came from members of Congress representing densely populated Northeastern states such as New Jersey and from national organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving. But its supporters include the transportation industry, which was a major force fighting for the legislation.

The legislation, which officially is known as the National Highway System Designation Act, now goes to the White House.

President Clinton has objected to certain parts of the legislation, especially the move to lift the national speed limit, but he has not said whether he will sign the legislation.

Another contentious measure in the bill would establish a three-year pilot program under which operators of some commercial vehicles weighing less than 26,000 pounds could request an exemption from some or all federal motor carrier safety laws and regulations. That includes rules concerning physical examinations for drivers, truck safety checks, vehicle maintenance files and logging hours on the road.

Enactment of the bill would free $6.5 billion in transportation grants in the current 1996 federal budget year and again next year to the states. Congress authorized those expenditures in 1991 under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.

The National Highway System would encompass about 4 percent of the country's total highway mileage, but account for 40 percent of all highway traffic. That includes 75 percent of all commercial trucking and 80 percent of all tourist travel, transportation officials say.

Congress set the national speed limit at 55 miles an hour in 1974 at the height of an oil embargo. It relaxed the law in 1987.

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