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Originally published Friday, July 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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House vote to clear longtime impasse on highway bill

After years of delay and months of negotiations, Congress prepared to vote on a $286.4 billion highway and mass-transit bill that would...

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — After years of delay and months of negotiations, Congress prepared to vote on a $286.4 billion highway and mass-transit bill that would send lawmakers home for their summer vacations bearing big gifts of roads, bridges and jobs.

The House was to vote first on the 1,000-page package, although last-minute disputes had lawmakers waiting in their offices yesterday. Several House members objected to a Senate provision allowing the reopening of a closed runway at a Montana Air Force base.

A post-midnight vote on the six-year measure would be the House's last major act before recessing for the six-week summer break. The Senate is to follow suit today.

With the president's expected signature, passage would end an almost two-year impasse in which Congress and the White House battled over the proper spending levels and states were at odds over how best to divide up the billions in federal highway money.

The bill would direct federal money to thousands of projects requested by members, from $200 million for a bridge in Alaska named for the chairman of the House Transportation Committee to $2 million to pave roads on a South Dakota Indian reservation.

The watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense said the bill contained 5,173 "high priority" projects worth approximately $14.8 billion.

The nation has been without a new act since September 2003, when the 1998-2003 law, funded at $218 billion, expired. Since then, Congress has had to pass 11 temporary extensions to keep money flowing to the states for construction projects.

That delay has disrupted schedules for new projects and prevented the hiring of tens of thousands of construction workers.

The final funding level for the 2004-09 period is nearly $100 billion less than lawmakers and transportation officials have said is necessary to make real improvements in the nation's congested, unsafe roads and bridges.

But the White House has insisted that Congress show fiscal discipline, saying it cannot go along with unbridled spending at a time of large budget deficits and rising military costs.

Lawmakers said they were generally satisfied. The bill, said Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., who heads the minority on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, "will make our nation's roads and bridges safer and less congested and create thousands of jobs from coast to coast."

"It's not going to solve the nation's congestion crisis, but it is a step in the right direction," said Ed Mortimer, director of transportation infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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The bill designates hundreds of new bus terminals, railways, bike trails, pedestrian walkways and parking lots. Mass transit receives more than 18 percent of the money, more than $50 billion, while $6 billion is set aside for transportation safety programs.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., top Democrat on the Finance Committee, said he had succeeded in inserting the provision in the bill to reopen a closed runway at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

The Finance Committee also inserted several new tax provisions, raising $495 million over 10 years by funneling some taxes on kerosene used as diesel into the Highway Trust Fund, while exempting limousines over 6,000 pounds from the gas-guzzler tax, at a cost of $46 million over 10 years. It also caps the 10 percent excise tax on fishing rods at $10.

The legislation guarantees that by 2008 every state will get back at least 92 percent of what it contributes through federal gas taxes to the Highway Trust Fund. The minimum rate of return now is 90.5 percent, and the demand for a more equitable division of money has been one of the major sticking points in crafting a compromise bill.

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