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Transportation Bill Clears House

Times Staff Writer

The House on Thursday approved a long-stalled $284-billion transportation bill loaded with thousands of projects for lawmakers’ home districts, despite President Bush’s call for Congress to apply the brakes to earmarking funds for pet programs.

The bill would provide funds for more than 4,000 projects -- mostly aimed at repairing roads and easing traffic congestion. But it also provides money for bike trails, sidewalk improvements, transportation museums and a snowmobile trail in Vermont.

And an amendment sponsored by Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Darrell E. Issa (R-Vista) would permit California to implement a state law allowing single occupants of high-mileage hybrid vehicles to use carpool lanes.

The measure exceeds the $256-billion limit the White House had originally set for the legislation last year, which led to an unusual showdown between the president and congressional Republicans that delayed the bill’s passage. The new figure is a compromise between what the White House wanted and a higher amount sought by members of Congress.

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The House bill passed, 417-9. The Senate version of the bill, also expected to cost $284 billion, is to be written next week.

A few thorny issues, such as how the money would be divvied up among states, must be resolved before a final measure is sent to Bush.

The White House has threatened a veto if the bill’s price tag increases any more.

California and several other states complain that they receive less in federal transportation money than their residents pay in gasoline taxes. Meanwhile, less populous states get back more than they contribute because it costs more to maintain their interstates than their motorists pay in gas taxes. Representatives of these states are fighting efforts to reduce their funding.

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With many lawmakers eager to deliver popular highway projects to their home states before next year’s election, Congress ultimately is expected to resolve such issues and send Bush a bill he can accept.

The measure, which would fund highway, mass transit and safety and research programs through 2009, represents a 42% spending increase from the last big transportation legislation, approved in 1998.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, portrayed the bill as vital to the nation’s economic health. “Our economy and our way of life depend on our ability to rapidly move both people and products,” he said.

The bill includes a provision that would ease decades-old federal rules against tolls on interstate highways. States could decide to impose tolls to address traffic congestion.

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All of California’s 53 House members voted for the bill.

Funds in the bill for the state include $3 million for a study on building a tunnel to end a decades-long fight over extending the 710 Freeway north through South Pasadena, $15 million for building bridges and underpasses that would help speed freight trains carrying goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to the east and reduce the risk of car-train collisions, and $10 million to retrofit San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

The White House was among those complaining about lawmakers in Washington earmarking money for specific projects in their communities. Administration officials said that state transportation officials were “far better equipped” to set the priorities for transportation spending. But the administration did not threaten a veto over the issue.

House members from both parties set aside more than $12 billion for specific projects, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group.

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H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for California’s Department of Finance, said he was irritated but not surprised by the level of earmarking.

“It’s in the congressional DNA,” Palmer said.

Taxpayer watchdogs said the numerous projects raise questions about Congress’ commitment to fiscal discipline.

“Lawmakers love the transportation bill because they can bring home the bacon to their districts in a very big way,” Taxpayers for Common Sense said in a statement. “But they are scoring dollars for projects regardless of whether those projects are included in local or state transportation plans, comply with federal law, or enjoy broad local support.”

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Rep. James L. Oberstar of Minnesota, top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, defended the earmarking.

“Not all wisdom in investing transportation dollars resides with state [departments of transportation],” he said. “When a road or bridge is not built or improved, or a transit system investment is not made, our constituents come to us.”

Among the projects that Taxpayers for Common Sense singled out for criticism was $2.5 million for landscaping along the Ronald Reagan Freeway in Simi Valley.

A spokesman for Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who sought the funding, called that stretch of freeway “the first impression” that many visitors have of the area.

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Funding in the bill also would finance a bicycle and pedestrian path along the Los Angeles River, improved street lighting in the San Fernando Valley and new trails in the Santa Monica Mountains.


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