Negotiators reach deal on highway bill

News USA Today July 28, 2005
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House and Senate negotiators have reached a broad agreement on a highway and mass transit bill, USA Today reported, signaling an end to an almost two-year standoff that has put safety programs on hold and delayed construction projects.

Lawmakers involved in the negotiations expect to present their report and have a House vote this week.

The bill would replace the $218 billion six-year program that expired in September 2003, providing $286.4 billion for the 2004-2009 period. Passage has been a priority of Congress, however, lawmakers have failed to resolve disputes with the White House over spending levels and with states over the distribution of federal highway money, USA Today reports.

On Wednesday, July 27, Congress moved to pass the 11th temporary extension of the old law, this time through midnight Saturday, July 30. The extensions have kept existing highway programs running but has prevented new ones from getting started – work that would address serious infrastructure problems, as well as create tens of thousands of jobs.

Stephen Sandherr, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of America, told USA Today that considering the budgetary restraints and the war in Iraq, “I think we’ve squeezed every penny we could” from negotiations. He also said that a lot of states have been contracting for little besides maintenance work because of the uncertainty of when Congress would pass a new bill.

The agreement finalized on Wednesday would create a formula where each state would be guaranteed a minimum 92 cents on federal grants for every dollar contributed to the Highway Trust Fund through gasoline taxes, by the end of the program.

The final bill also would include specific projects requested by lawmakers for their districts or states, such as highways, bridges, bike paths and pedestrian trails.

USA Today reports slightly more than 18% of the funds would go to public transit, for bus and train projects and special programs for the disabled or to promote public transportation in national parks. About $6 billion is directed to safety programs.

The House committee aught as much as $375 billion for the bill in the last session of Congress, citing the importance of repairing deteriorated highways and bridges that are blamed for thousands of fatal traffic accidents every year. However, with the federal budget deficit reaching record levels, the White House insisted on a far lower level.

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