Transportation bill puts pork in fast lane Budget worries yield to nationwide plans

quick passage forecast

March 11, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer David Folkenflik contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- A bus museum in Minnesota, a rail history showcase in West Virginia and a faux-Parthenon in Nashville may not seem like crucial elements in the nation's transportation system.

But they and many other such projects have found their way into the largest transportation legislation in the country's history, a bill whose passage by summer appears unstoppable.

The debate over the bill authorizing highway, bridge and mass transit projects nationwide for the next six years was once framed as a battle of wills, a showdown between the imperative of a balanced budget and the primal demands for pork by Congress in an election year.

So far, it has been no contest.

"It's the dog that didn't bite," complained Robert Bixby, policy director of the budget-conscious Concord Coalition. "You get up to Capitol Hill and find the deficit hawks aren't fighting this."

Both the Senate and the House appear ready to violate last year's balanced budget agreement in order to boost transportation spending in time for the November election. This week, the Senate is set to approve a massive $214.3 billion version of the transportation bill that exceeds spending limits in the budget deal by roughly $14 billion. The House bill considerably exceeds the Senate's total and could shatter budget caps by more than $30 billion.

While Maryland is due to get a smaller percentage of the total than it does now, the state's lawmakers are celebrating the swift growth of the program's size: Under both House and Senate proposals, Maryland would receive significantly more than the current annual authorization of $307.3 million for highways, bridges and road construction.

State officials have compiled an ambitious wish list of projects, including building viaducts over railway tracks in the East Baltimore empowerment zone, completing the overhaul of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and expanding U.S. 113 to four lanes on the Eastern Shore.

Maryland carries some influence in the Senate, where Paul S. Sarbanes is the senior Democrat on the Banking Committee, which controls public transit, as well as the House, where two members sit on the powerful House Transportation Committee -- Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and GOP Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore.

Neither side of the Capitol has come up with offsetting spending cuts to make up for the rapidly escalating costs. Nor do many in Congress seem to care.

With the fragrant scent of budget surpluses in the air, the nation's crumbling roads and bridges, the frayed tempers of a commuting electorate and the election-year demands of Congress have silenced the once-vociferous voices of a once-miserly Congress.

The years when balancing the budget dominated the Washington landscape have taken their toll on the nation's infrastructure, leaving pent-up demands for highway repairs, widening and road-building.

"The needs are there. They're very clear, all across the country," said Rep. Bud Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

That message is getting through.

"The whole environment today is so different," said Sen. Connie Mack of Florida, a member of the GOP leadership. "The concept of surpluses has thrown everything into disarray."

The House bill would increase annual spending on highways from $21 billion to $32 billion, and mass transit spending from $4 billion to $6.4 billion, a 50 percent increase. The Senate bill is not far behind.

With numbers such as those and with the largess so well-dispersed, it is little wonder that even budget hawks in good standing refuse to "rock the boat," as one Midwestern budget aide put it. GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a proud "pork buster," summed up the dilemma. "I worry about the amount of money," he said, "and I worry about the formula for my state."

The Senate bill steers clear of "demonstration projects," specific programs requested by members of Congress that are most vulnerable to "pork barrel" accusations. Only repair work on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge spanning the Potomac River from Maryland to Virginia has a specific price attached -- $900 million through 2003.

Virtually all the Senate money would be parceled out by state and federal departments of transportation.

In contrast, the House version is larded with demonstration projects. House members want to boast about specific projects they brought to their districts. Unlike senators, they can point to the bottom-line number they secured for their constituents.

Some of the more unusual House requests include:

The Hibbing Bus Museum in the Minnesota district of Rep. James L. Oberstar, the senior Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Renovation of the Parthenon, a Nashville art museum designed as a replica of the ancient Greek temple in Athens, for Democratic Rep. Bob Clement, a Transportation Committee member.

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