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TRANSPORTATION : Battle Brews Over Plan to Use Road Funds for Mass Transit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A five-syllable word being uttered by a new House committee chairman has truckers, road builders, auto clubs and other members of the highway lobby shuddering.

Rep. Robert A. Roe (D-N.J.) advocates giving states the “flexibility” to spend federal highway funds on mass transit systems. Although many urban areas would love to do so, they cannot under current law.

But that law expires Sept. 30. And Roe, who just became chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, will have a big hand in writing the new one.

The flexibility issue is but one of many that Congress will tackle when it takes up legislation to reauthorize funding of highway and mass transit programs through fiscal 1996.

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With a five-year price tag that could top $100 billion, the legislation will be one of the most costly items on Congress’ agenda when it convenes Jan. 3.

BACKGROUND: Highway and mass transit interests have warred for years over divvying up federal gasoline tax revenues that flow into the Highway Trust Fund. Originally, the money was spent on road projects. But for more than a decade a fraction of the funds has been reserved for mass transit.

Until recently, the gas tax was 9 cents per gallon; 8 of those pennies went for highways, 1 for public bus and rail systems. (Each cent per gallon generates about $1 billion.)

The deficit reduction package passed by Congress earlier this year raised the gas tax by 5 cents per gallon. Half of that will go into the Highway Trust Fund. Highways will get 2 additional cents, mass transit another half of a penny. The balance will be used for deficit reduction.

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Not only is the trust fund growing, but also most of the huge sums that have been spent on interstate highways for the last 35 years can be applied now to other transportation projects, since only about 300 miles of the 42,800-mile interstate system remain to be built.

Moreover, the trust fund now has a surplus of about $19 billion. As the fund grows, so have conflicts over how to spend it. With the development of interstates, suburbs have sprouted and sprawled, creating demands for new transportation networks. Many highways and bridges are in desperate need of repair, but new modes of public transportation are essential to cutting pollution and congestion.

Passage of the last highway/mass transit measure, in 1987, set off a raucous veto fight with then-President Ronald Reagan. He assailed 120 “pork barrel” road projects listed in the bill as well as $667 million earmarked for the Los Angeles Metro Rail system.

Congress overrode the veto, forcing the $88-billion measure into law.

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ISSUES: The debate on new legislation likely will center on the push by Roe and others for more mass transit money.

“In urban centers, more highways alone are not the total answer. We’re kidding ourselves if we don’t move people with some flexibility,” Roe said.

But Jack Martin, a spokesman for the Highway Users Federation, said mass transit “already has plenty” of federal money, “especially in view of all the highway infrastructure needs that are not being met around the country.”

Closely related to this controversy will be President Bush’s proposal to build new arterial roads dubbed “highways of national significance.” Many would link interstates in areas of high population growth.

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The Administration also is expected to spur controversy with plans to switch funding of some mass transit projects from the Highway Trust Fund to general revenues, which would force transit systems to compete for funds with non-transportation programs.

OUTLOOK: A Bush veto is likely if Congress tries to spend more than the $14.5 billion a year now going for highways and mass transit. Congress may attempt just that, especially in the event of a deep recession. Many lawmakers think creating public works jobs can spur economic recovery.


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