The Bush administration has sent to Congress its long-awaited proposal to reauthorize federal highway, transit and safety programs, a bill that would provide $247 billion, a 19% increase over current levels. But Congress is likely to seek to push the funding even higher.

(Photo courtesy of U.S. Dept. of Transportation)

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta on May 14 released the 378-page bill, which officials have dubbed "SAFETEA"--for Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003. At a press conference at the department's headquarters, he described the legislation as "quite simply the largest surface and public transportation commitment in American history."

As the bill's title indicates, Mineta is stressing safety. He says the current total of about 43,000 highway fatalities "is unacceptable…and failure to act is not an option." The legislation funds highway safety programs at more than twice current levels and provides funding incentives to states that achieve gains in safety, such as achieving 90% use of seat belts.

Mineta also notes that the bill doesn't include a proposal to increase the federal motor fuels tax. Asked whether President Bush would veto a bill from Congress that includes a tax hike, Mineta says, "I don't want to use the "V Word" at this stage of the game." But he adds that Bush "did want us to put the program together based on no new taxes or no new indexing of taxes." Members of Congress have floated the ideas of higher taxes and raising the fuel levy to account for inflation to raise more money for roads and transit.

Mineta also threw some cold water on a proposal to offset revenue the Highway Trust Fund loses because of the 5.2-per-gallon spread between the taxes on gasohol and gasoline. The Senate Finance Committee has approved a plan that would keep the tax differential but make up that revenue lost by establishing a new tax credit. But Mineta says, "I'm sure that there would be objections to that approach, because it comes from the general Treasury." That concept would be "a red flag" to the Office of Management and Budget, he adds.

Most of the bill's main elements have been public for weeks. The Dept. of Transportation released the funding levels in February, with its fiscal 2004 budget plan. But the release of the detailed legislative language moves the debate forward a step. No bill has been introduced yet by the key House and Senate committee chairs.

The measure provides a guaranteed $201 billion for highways and $37.6 billion for mass transit over the six-year span. It continues the protective budgetary "firewalls" set up in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century.

The bill also contains provisions aimed at expediting environmental reviews of transportation projects.

Mineta says the proposal would provide flexibility to state and local officials so they can stretch the federal aid further. The provisions include a pilot program permitting states to receive funds for the major highway categories in a block grant.

The bill also would widen eligibility for tax-exempt financing, to include highways and "surface freight transfer facilities." The volume of such bonds would be capped at $15 billion.