‘SAFETEA' bill faces veto threat, but Inhofe calls the legislation ‘fiscally responsible'. (Photo courtesy of office of Sen. James Inhofe)

In the face of a Bush administration veto threat, the Senate has approved a $318-billion measure that will fund highway and transit programs for the next six years. The new bill, approved by a comfortable 76-21 margin the evening of Feb. 12, represents an increase of about 45% over the funding contained in the current authorization statute, the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century.

TEA-21 expired last Sept. 30 and Congress approved a five-month extension to keep the highway and transit funds flowing. But that extension runs out on Feb. 29.

Senate advocates and their construction industry supporters cheered the latest vote, but there's a cloud on the horizon: The White House says the bill's price tag is too rich and adds that administration officials would recommend a presidential veto unless the legislation is cut back.


The administration has a $256-billion proposal on the table, but President Bush hasn't said publicly whether he's willing to accept something higher than that. He did make clear a bill totaling $290 billion is too high, according to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) Nevertheless, the Senate's vote to pass the bill is well above the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto.

The other question mark overhanging the legislation, which would be the largest public works bill in U.S. history, is: What will the House do? On Feb. 11, that chamber approved a further, four-month extension of TEA-21, to continue the surface transportation programs into June. It is unclear whether the House will be spurred by the Senate vote to pass its own multi-year bill, or stand pat with the extension.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who led the floor fight for the new "SAFETEA" bill, for Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act, said the legislation provides "crucial funding to improve our nation's transportation infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner while creating millions of new job opportunities to help our economy grow."

The package authorizes $255 billion for highways, $56.5 billion for mass transit and $6 billion for highway safety. To help "donor" states, the bill ensures that all states will receive at least 95 cents in federal highway aid for each dollar in fuel taxes that their motorists pay into the Highway Trust Fund. But it doesn't completely make good on that guarantee until fiscal 2009, the final year of the bill.

Some of the Senate opposition came from those representing states like Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, which got relatively small funding increases compared with other states' allocations.