Congress, with the sometimes reluctant assent of the Bush administration, is halfway through the task of radically overhauling this nation's federal transportation policy. With the 35-year-old interstate highway system nearing completion, it is time for a new approach, one that gives far greater stress to repairing existing roads and bridges and promoting mass transit programs than to new highway construction.
The president started this reassessment when he proposed a $105-billion, 5-year transportation program with an enlarged national highway system eligible for federal funds. But the Senate, led by the creative Daniel P. Moynihan, refocused this measure on road maintenance, mass transit and flexibility for the states on how to spend much of the money. Before passing the bill this week, 91-7, senators also found ways to inflate the price tag to $123 billion, which angered Mr. Bush.
This measure's greatest innovation is giving states the freedom to decide how to use nearly one-third of the funds. State governments, after all, are in far better position to identify the most pressing local transportation priorities -- be they new roads, bridges, trains, subways or buses. Mass transit would receive greater emphasis from the Senate than under the president's plan.
For Maryland, the Senate measure would give the state $330 million a year, or a little more than the current allocations. An added plus would be $9 million a year to continue upgrading the state's MARC commuter rail system, a continuation of $19 million in mass transit operating aid and $100 million to improve the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Baltimore and the Washington area also might receive some of the $5 billion set aside for congestion relief and air-quality improvement in big cities.
Additionally, Maryland could be a prime beneficiary of a provision earmarking aside $750 million for a prototype magnetic levitation high-speed transit line. Sen. Barbara Mikulski is already pushing for a $500,000 federal grant to get such a demonstration project between Baltimore and Washington off the ground.
Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner calls this proposal "a good first step." He may not like House Speaker Thomas Foley's version of a second step: a much larger program to rebuild the nation's overall transportation infrastructure. Mr. Foley is aiming at a $150 billion transportation package financed by another 5-cent increase in the federal gasoline tax. Mr. Bush won't be happy about that aspect of the plan, but such a huge anti-recession, pork-barrel program could prove irresistible to Republicans and Democrats alike in the House.