Senate Transit Bill Stalled by Fight : Legislation: Failure to agree on compromise plan for allocating aid to states prevents passage of measure. Further action may be taken today.


An attempt by the Senate to pass a landmark transportation bill dissolved early today as an acrimonious fight broke out among the states over their shares of billions of dollars in federal aid for highways and mass transit systems.

The failure to settle on a compromise aid allocation plan that would have permitted Senate passage of the bill clearly angered the measure's principal author, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N. Y.).

"Those who think they will get more by being difficult may get nothing. Nothing," Moynihan said. "Which is what they'll deserve."

The Senate is expected to take up the bill again as early as today.

The transportation bill would earmark less money for highways and allow more spending for mass transit and, in the process, grant states unprecedented authority to spend federal aid as they see fit.

The plan, encompassing the first major overhaul of federal transportation legislation in 35 years, calls for spending at least $115 billion through fiscal 1996--a $35-billion hike over transportation spending from 1986 through 1991. But even its supporters say that the bill will not provide enough money to adequately repair the nation's deteriorating road network.

"The . . . funding level pales in comparison to our transportation and infrastructure needs," Sen. Steve Symms (R-Ida.), one of the measure's chief sponsors, told his colleagues when debate on the measure began Tuesday.

The Senate bill would scrap the maze of road-building programs created by Congress in 1956 to finance construction of the 42,800-mile interstate highway system, which is now all but complete, and substitute programs that would gives states far greater authority to shift funds from highway to mass transit projects. It would also require states to adopt more aggressive planning programs. Current highway and mass transit legislation expires on Sept. 30.

The issue that snagged the bill's progress early today involves the complex and antiquated formulas used to allocate the billions of dollars collected through the federal gasoline tax. Senators from so-called donor states, led by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), have argued that the Senate should increase the return of federal aid to their states. Donor states are those that traditionally contribute more to the federal highway trust fund, through the federal gasoline tax, than they receive in federal transportation aid.

California motorists, for example, contributed $5.48 billion to the highway trust fund during fiscal years 1987 to 1990. But the state received only $5.07 billion in transportation aid. Alaska, on the other hand, contributed $108.7 million, but received $666.6 million in aid.

Lawmakers from less populated but geographically large Western states objected to Warner's plan to increase the guaranteed minimum return from the current level of 85% to 90%. They argued that the cost of maintaining their interstate and other federal aid highways is much greater than their motorists can pay in gasoline taxes.

Moynihan and Warner appeared to be on the verge of a compromise Thursday night. The deal later fell through, however, when donor-state senators could not agree on a proposal that would have provided their states with an additional $4.1 billion in aid over five years. The senators are expected to continue to meet privately over the weekend to seek a resolution.

"The only issue left . . . is to fight over the money," Symms said.

The House has not yet acted on a transportation bill. Leaders of the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation are expected to announce their proposal sometime after the July 4 recess. The House measure is expected to call for substantially higher spending, perhaps as much as $153 billion over five years, to be supported by an proposal to increase the 14-cent-a-gallon federal gasoline tax by at least a nickel.

The Bush Administration last winter announced its own transportation initiative, which calls for spending $105 billion over five years. The Administration proposal includes significant increases in the matching shares paid by the states and more tightly restricts the ability of states to shift funds across program lines.

The Senate legislation would dramatically alter the way the federal government parcels out to states billions of dollars in aid for highways, bridges bus lines and rail systems. The measure emphasizes cutting traffic congestion without starting massive new road-building projects.

"We have to think beyond concrete," said Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.). "We have to think beyond cement."

For example, the bill calls for spending $750 million to develop technology for high-speed trains that are magnetically levitated above their tracks, another $750 million for electronic "smart-car" technology to alert drivers to congestion hot spots and $5 billion on a congestion reduction program for areas, such as Southern California, that do not meet federal clean air standards.

The heart of the Moynihan bill is a flexible $45-billion surface transportation program that states could use for either highway or mass transit projects, including new highway construction, road rehabilitation, capital costs for rail or bus systems, safety improvements and car- and van-pooling projects.

Other programs would pay for bridge repair, maintenance and completion of the interstate highway system, construction of scenic byways and off-road trails and assistance with toll road projects. Generally, the federal-state matching ratio under the Moynihan bill is 80-20. However, the bill provides only a 75-25 match for new road construction projects. The Bush Administration had proposed a basic matching share of 60-40.

One major obstacle to passage was resolved Thursday when Moynihan agreed to a plan that would create a 184,000-mile National Highway System, including the interstate network, that would receive a minimum of $22 billion in aid over the five-year life of the bill.

The system is the centerpiece of the Administration's plan, and Secretary of Transportation Samuel K. Skinner had said he would recommend a veto if the system were omitted.

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