The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has approved a bill that would restore a minimum of $4.4 billion in fiscal 2003 highway aid that President Bush proposed cutting in his budget proposal. But since then, administration officials have endorsed adding back that money.

Petri introduced firewall amendment. (Photo by the Office of Rep. Tom Petri)

In an April 26 video message to the Associated General Contractors, Bush himself referred to the agreement on additional highway aid among his administration and House transportation and budget committee leaders.

Adding the $4.4 billion would bring the 2003 highway total to $27.7 billion, the amount guaranteed for that year by the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. But it would be well below the 2002 highway level of $31.8 billion.

The House committee, which approved the measure unanimously on May 1, also added an amendment from Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wisc.) that would put the $4.4 billion behind the protective budgetary "firewall" set up in TEA-21.

John Carney, a spokesman for the American Council of Engineering Companies, sees the committee's action as "an effort in protecting the integrity of TEA-21." Putting the $4.4 billion behind the firewall would result in having that money divided up among the states by formula, and not earmarked for individual projects by lawmakers.

A Senate bill to add at least $4.4 billion has gained 74 cosponsors, substantially more than a majority there, but a scheduled April 25 vote by the Environment and Public Works Committee on that measure was postponed. The reason, it's believed, is a disagreement over how much additional highway aid the bill should contain. Some Senators apparently favor $4.4 billion, while others support $5.7 billion, which is the amount called for in the pending Senate budget resolution for 2003.

The House panel's approval is a positive move in the eyes of construction officials, but it is far from the last word on Capitol Hill on the issue. Still needed are votes by Senate authorizers and, importantly, concurrence by House and Senate appropriators, who traditionally vie with authorizers over who controls highway spending. Appropriations action for fiscal 2003 isn't expected for many weeks.