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House easily advances $275 billion transportation bill

Road ahead still bumpy in light of Bush veto threat

By Dan Morgan
Washington Post

The House, in an unusually strong rebuff to the White House, voted 357 to 65 yesterday to approve a $275 billion transportation bill that exceeds a spending limit set by President Bush and is laden with thousands of highway and bridge projects for lawmakers' districts.

The bill funds new roads, interchanges, bridges, bike paths, ferry terminals and recreational trails. It authorizes an experiment in the use of toll lanes on some congested highways, to give motorists a choice of paying a fee instead of waiting in traffic, and funds a pilot program that would separate truck traffic from other vehicles. About $50 billion is set aside for mass transit programs, including a study of a new Purple Line for the Washington Metro.

An additional $6 billion would go to a new program attacking transportation problems deemed to be of regional or national significance. House aides said the money might be used to improve north-south truck routes that have been strained by the new demands of trade between Canada, Mexico and the United States.

The lopsided approval signaled that House supporters have more than enough votes to override the president if he carries through on a threat to exercise his first veto against the measure. But the action left bitter feelings on the part of dozens of Republican members who charged that -- despite the proposed record spending -- their states were seriously shortchanged in the final package. Fifty-nine Republicans voted against the measure.

The tensions within the GOP guarantee months of difficult negotiations ahead for Republican House leaders as they try to placate their members, reconcile the House bill with a costlier $318 billion Senate version and fend off White House demands for further cuts to bring the measure down to the president's target of $256 billion. "This is still a work in progress," cautioned Rep. Thomas E. Petri (R-Wis.), who heads the House subcommittee overseeing highway programs.

The behemoth measure approved yesterday provides a blueprint for federal highway, mass transit and safety programs over the next six years. "It does what's necessary to keep this country moving," said Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who chairs the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Members of both parties said the legislation is critically needed to repair crumbling highways and bridges, relieve traffic congestion and air pollution from vehicles, and provide jobs in nearly every county in the nation.

But along with providing money for such broad-brush programs, the bill became a magnet for scores of parochial pork-barrel projects requested by lawmakers as the measure worked its way through the House. Republicans and Democrats divvied up an $11 billion pot of these "high priority" projects, with the majority going to senior members, committee chairmen and lawmakers serving on the Transportation Committee.

Such far-flung locations as Pago Pago, American Samoa islands, and North Pole, Alaska, were singled out for projects.

The bill channels $16 million to "pedestrian walkway improvements" in Houston, hometown of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).

There is also $10 million to construct a bridge joining Ketchikan, Alaska, to the island of Gravina in the home state of Young. A spokesman for the Alaska Republican said the project will enable Ketchikan, a lumber and fishing town nestled between mountains and sea, to expand across the bridge.

A 133-page amendment approved overwhelmingly Thursday provides an additional $1 billion in new projects, including $7 million to build a "Renaissance Square" in Rochester, N.Y.; $3.4 million to pay for new vans for Boysville (Holy Cross Children's Services), a Catholic-oriented nonprofit agency in Clinton, Mich.; and $1 million to rehabilitate a historic depot in Jesup, Ga.

Few resisted the spending juggernaut.

Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) charged in a news release that the bill would "literally pave over the recent House-passed budget resolution," undermining Congress's ability to reduce the deficit. But an amendment by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) that could have wiped out pet projects of lawmakers and diverted the money to the regular highway aid program went down to defeat on Thursday, 367 to 60.

In the final scramble for a share of the funds, House leaders stepped into the process to protect some fiscal conservatives from retribution. These included Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), Who had incurred Young's wrath for opposing a gasoline tax increase to raise more money for highway building.

As the bill moved toward House action, Young denied Musgrave's request for $14 million in road building funds for her eastern Colorado district. But House leaders shoehorned the money into a last-minute amendment to the bill.

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