Tennessean - Mike Madden and Ledyard King
Tennessee would get nearly $175 million more each year in federal transportation funding than it does now under a massive transit bill the Senate passed yesterday.
But that doesn't mean Volunteer State drivers should start dreaming of smooth new roads or fancy new buses quite yet — the House and Senate must reconcile different versions of the legislation. Plus, the White House may find the bill too expensive.
Still, the Senate's action, which comes about a month after the House passed its own version, gave hope to state transportation officials who have been waiting for years for more money.
Federal transportation aid to states has been frozen at 2003 levels since the last major transit funding law Congress passed expired. The law has been extended several times on a short-term basis, but states have had little long-range guidance as they put together budgets, leaving them wondering how much money they'd be getting in the future.
"We are looking forward to the final passage of the transportation bill after working on extensions for so long," said Kim Keelor, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Transportation. "It is very difficult to plan while working on one extension after another.''
The bill the Senate passed would send more money to Tennessee and other states than the House version.
Under current law, Tennessee gets about $629 million each year for highways, mass transit and other transportation projects. The Senate bill would kick that up to $804 million, an increase of nearly 28%. The House would increase it to $765 million, or about 22%.
The bill contains a number of safety measures aimed at reducing highway deaths, which the U.S. Department of Transportation said totaled 42,643 in 2003.
When a final proposal is passed, it also will include millions of dollars for local transportation projects around the state. Lawmakers will add those during negotiations between the House and Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, hailed the bill's passage, calling it "an achievement we can all be proud of.''
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, said he was pleased as well. The bill included his plan to spend $150 million over five years to maintain roads in national parks.
"This bill ensures that Tennesseans will be getting back more of what they're paying for instead of seeing their federal gas tax dollars go elsewhere,'' Alexander said.
The bill would plow billions into highway and transit projects through the end of the decade, but some state officials say even the more expensive Senate version isn't enough to keep pace with growing traffic congestion.
"The major concern is we really are falling short,'' said Jack Basso of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
Neither bill would increase the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax, which funds highway and some transit projects.
But the White House has threatened to veto any bill that costs more than the $284 billion the House approved. The Senate version costs $295 billion.
The bill's total cost is one difference the Senate and House must iron out. Among others:
• The Senate would give states greater flexibility to install tolls on existing interstates. The House would let states add tolls only if money raised creates new highway capacity, except in rare circumstances.
• The House bill would require Congress to revisit the highway aid formula next year and substantially improve it for states that send more to Washington in fuel taxes than they get back in highway aid. Conservatives worry that the provision could force a gas tax increase. The Senate version calls for a more modest increase in the rate of return.
• The House version includes more than 4,000 specific road projects sprinkled throughout every state, which fiscal conservatives criticize as pork barrel spending. The Senate bill does not name any, though senators are expected to add them during negotiations with the House.