Congress passes $200 billion transportation bill Included for Maryland are MARC expansion, more light rail tracks

May 23, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With lawmakers rushing off for the Memorial Day recess, Congress hurriedly voted yesterday afternoon to enact a behemoth six-year, $200 billion transportation bill that significantly boosts spending on Maryland's highways and public transit systems.

Perhaps most striking for Marylanders was the last-minute inclusion of $185 million to expand and upgrade MARC, the state's commuter rail system, and $120 million to provide double tracks for Baltimore's light rail system.

"We come out better than it looked when we first started out on this voyage," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who was a negotiator on the mass transit portion of the legislation. "It's a good bill. It gives the state the resources with which to push ahead on its transportation network."

Lawmakers hashed out details of the bill late Thursday and well into the afternoon yesterday, but leaders of both parties were eager to pass it before the holiday break.

The measure passed both the House and Senate by wide margins.

In Maryland, however, dissenting votes included GOP Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland, Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County and Democratic Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore and Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland.

"The congressman thinks it's too much money," says Chris McCannell, a Hoyer spokesman. Morella and Cardin have expressed similar concerns.

Bartlett voted against the measure in protest of the method used to help pay for it -- cuts of $18 billion from other programs, mostly health benefits for U.S. military veterans.

About $2 billion would be cut from social services programs for lower-income families, Senate aides said.

Some of the new money is dedicated to small projects sought by individual senators for Maryland and other states, including, for example, $1.25 million for a pedestrian bridge over the Susquehanna River connecting Havre de Grace and Perryville.

In addition, the package would provide $91,000 for improved signs along the C&O canal; $6 million for Morgan State University's transportation study center; $25 million to address safety concerns at Route 113 in Worcester County; $900 million to help pay for the upgrade of the Woodrow Wilson bridge; and $26 million to smooth out the complicated interchange of interstates 70 and 270 in Frederick.

"The money will be used for improving roads and safety," said Eric Webster, legislative director for Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican and a member of the House Transportation Committee. "On Route 113, 70 people have died in the last 19 years alone. Without specific earmarks, this road might not have been fixed."

To pay for more than $2 billion in senators' pet priorities, negotiators for the House and Senate agreed to reduce spending on the $9 billion in specific projects sought by individual members of the House of Representatives for their own districts.

For example, Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat who serves on the House Transportation Committee, had earlier secured $40 million for several projects in his West Baltimore district. Instead, the bill will pay for $31 million there. But he joined colleagues in praising the package.

On average, Maryland would receive about $394 million a year for the next six years, an $88 million rise over the levels set in the original 1991 transportation package.

The state would also receive $18.5 million to replace an aging bus fleet over six years.

Nationally, the bill is to spend at least $165 billion and as much as $178 billion on the country's highways and bridges, and would spend at least $36.3 billion and as much as $41 billion on mass transit projects.

Either way, the legislation, which pledges to spend a minimum of $204 billion and a maximum of $217 billion, represents the largest public works bill in the nation's history.

Pub Date: 5/23/98

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