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Senate Leaders Make Highway Deal, Raising Funding 40 Percent

By Eric Pianin
The Washington Post

Senate leaders from both parties struck a deal Monday to increase highway spending to $173 billion over the next six years, a more than 40 percent jump over previous years.

The deal, which was made under pressure from state governors, industry lobbyists, and other senators, clears the way for passage of a new highway bill by the full Senate this month and enhances the prospects for a compromise with the House.

The House leadership has supported spending in the same range as Monday's Senate deal. However, influential House members and some Senators have pushed for even more transportation spending.

Although the increased spending exceeds limits imposed by last year's multi-year balanced budget agreement, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who attended the final bargaining session in the office of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., pledged to find offsetting cuts in other programs.

"We have made a good faith effort to secure additional transportation funds, but the additional money cannot come at the expense of the good faith efforts to balance the federal budget," said Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

The deal also changes long-standing regional inequities in the formula for distributing highway funds by assuring that no state gets back less than 91 cents in aid for every $1 of taxes paid into the Federal Highway Trust Fund. Under the current formula, some so-called "donor" states, especially in the South, get back as little as 71 cents for every dollar they pay into the highway system.

The National Governors Association and other state and local officials have urged Congress to act swiftly on new legislation before a looming May 1 deadline, warning that 42,100 jobs could be lost for every $1 billion of road contracts canceled because of congressional delays. Officials from northern tier states with short construction seasons are concerned that they will have to postpone many highway and bridge projects on the drawing board now unless Congress acts soon.