Congress settles disputes on transportation bill Lower blood-alcohol level for drunken driving is encouraged, not required

May 19, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- House and Senate negotiators yesterday announced the broad outlines of a compromise transportation bill that would encourage -- but not require -- states to lower the blood-alcohol level at which drivers are deemed legally drunk.

The agreement on the drunken-driving issue effectively killed a Senate-backed provision that would have required states to set a level of 0.08 or lose a portion of their federal highway funding.

Instead, the compromise bill provides only incentives, offering a $500 million pool in extra highway money to those states that enact the 0.08 blood-alcohol level. The Maryland General Assembly has defeated efforts to lower the state's legal threshold of 0.10.

The overall transportation bill would set aside more than $200 billion for highways, bridges and mass transit projects -- the largest public works legislation in U.S. history. The full House and Senate are expected to pass the legislation by the end of the week.

Of paramount interest to Maryland is the $900 million allocated to overhaul the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which links Prince George's County and Alexandria, Va. Details of other projects earmarked for Maryland are still being worked out, legislators said.

While Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, both Democrats, hailed the $900 million as a first step toward shoring up the federally owned bridge, several congressional aides cautioned that specifics remained sketchy.

It is not clear, for example, whether the ownership of the bridge would be turned over to Maryland and Virginia. Cost estimates to upgrade the bridge range from $1.6 billion to $2.1 billion, which officials for the two states say they cannot afford.

"The devil is in the details, and we haven't seen the details," said Jesse Jacobs, a spokesman for Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat.

Funding levels for mass transit have also not been determined. Equally unclear is how much federal spending would have to be cut elsewhere to ensure that the overall budget remains balanced.

The legislation would be at least $9 billion less than either the Senate or the House had passed in their differing versions this spring. President Clinton had previously indicated that he might veto the measure if it expanded the budget or failed to impose strict anti-drunken driving measures. But yesterday, Barry Toiv, a White House spokesman, offered a more receptive response.

"We're disappointed that the sanctions against drunk driving, which would save hundreds of lives each year, were not included," Toiv said. "But we hope the incentives will encourage as many states as possible to adopt the .08 standards."

Negotiators set aside $2.35 billion for individual projects promoted by senators and $7 billion for those pushed by House members. That represents a $2 billion reduction from the initial levels sought by the House. But each of the House's 435 representatives would receive an average of $16 million for his or her district.

While information on individual projects was sketchy yesterday, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said the city would retain $5 million for a study that would be the first step toward building a high-speed rail line between Baltimore and Washington.

The cost of the bill was lost on budget-minded critics. But it was the spread-the-wealth philosophy of the bill, particularly on the House side, that ensured its popularity in a Congress led by Republicans who stress fiscal prudence.

Pub Date: 5/19/98

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