MAKING THE PITCH DOT Secretary Mineta (right) and FHWA chief Mary Peters defend bill at House hearing. (Photo courtesy of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee)

The Bush administration has rolled out its long-gestating proposal to reauthorize federal highway and transit programs, giving a bit of momentum to the slow-moving legislation. But the plan's funding was criticized as too little to meet infrastructure needs, a sign that a tough battle lies ahead.

The bill, dubbed "SAFETEA," for the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, would provide $247 billion over six years, including $201 billion for highways and $37.6 billion for transit. The total is a 19% gain over the total guaranteed by the current law, TEA-21, which expires Sept. 30.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta described the legislation, sent to Congress on May 14, as "quite simply the largest surface and public transportation commitment in American history." But key lawmakers say it isn't large enough. "We disagree on the numbers," says House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska). Minnesota's James Oberstar, the panel's top Democrat, terms SAFETEA's funding "anemic."

Young and Oberstar support a $375-billion program but have yet to introduce their bill. Committee spokesman Steve Hansen says the soonest it would be introduced is next month. Young wants it on the House floor before the August recess, he adds. Senate leaders haven't introduced their bill either.

As the title of the administration bill indicates, Mineta is stressing safety. He says the current annual 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 incentives to states that achieve safety benchmarks, such as having 90% of passengers using seat belts. But even in that area, Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-W. Va.) says he wants more "hard safety solutions," such as aid for signs and median barriers and improved railroad grade crossings.

‘SAFETEA' Bill Highlights:
  • $201 billion for highways; $37.6 billion for transit
  • No hike in motor fuels taxes; No indexing
  • $1-billion annual trust fund balance drawdown for
       ‘ready-to-go' projects
  • 5-state pilot program for highway block grants
  • Cut federal transit matching share to 50%
  • Expedite projects' environmental reviews
  • Widen eligibility for tax-exempt highway financin
  • Source: U.S. Dept. of Transportation

    Funding remains the key issue. Industry officials recognize that Mineta did include some provisions to boost spending. Among them: using $1 billion a year from the Highway Trust Fund balance for projects that are "ready to go." Stephen E. Sandherr, the Associated General Contractors' CEO, says, "We appreciate that the administration looked under the sofa cushions to find as much revenue as possible." But AGC and others want to go further. "SAFETEA demonstrates that the current revenue stream is just wholly inadequate to meet [DOT's] own needs assessment," says David Bauer, American Road & Transportation Builders Association's vice president for government relations.

    The administration opposes the big revenue raiser: hiking the motor fuels tax. There's no such increase in SAFETEA, Mineta notes. Nor does it index the tax for inflation. Young favors indexing. "That's not in your bill," he told Mineta at a May 15 hearing. "But it's going to be in my bill...."

    Mineta threw cold water on a proposal to offset revenue the Highway Trust Fund loses because of the 5.2-per-gallon spread between taxes on gasohol and gasoline. The Senate Finance Committee has approved a plan to keep the tax differential but set up a new tax credit to make up lost revenue. Mineta says that concept would be a red flag to the Office of Management and Budget.

    SAFETEA also has many changes in how programs would operate. One with wide construction and Capitol Hill support is a plan to expedite environmental reviews of transportation projects.

    Mineta says the bill also would give states and localities flexibility to stretch federal aid further. It has a pilot program allowing up to five states to replace big highway funding categories with a block grant. It 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.

    But transit advocates are unhappy about SAFETEA. The American Public Transportation Association calls it "a move in the wrong direction for transportation investment policy." APTA is fighting a provision to cut the federal funding share for new starts to 50%, from 80% now. APTA may win that battle: Senate committee leaders oppose trimming the federal share.