House leaders propose 5-cent gas tax increase for transportation projects


WASHINGTON -- Motorists across the nation would pay another nickel per gallon in federal gasoline taxes to underwrite an ambitious five-year, $153 billion transportation bill introduced by House leaders yesterday.

But Maryland commuters might see little return on their extra investment.

The House version of the Surface Transportation Act, which has bipartisan support, would double current federal spending on transportation. But state officials say that, while Maryland received $1.75 billion in federal highway and transit aid over the past five years, the House bill would provide only $1.7 billion over the next five.

Kenneth Mannella, acting chief lobbyist for the state in Washington, pointed out that the bill was more generous than the earlier White House proposal or the Senate transportation bill, passed in June.

And he added that the bill's bottom line for the state wouldn't be clear until Monday, when the House Public Works Committee releases a list of between 180 and 200 of what legislators called "Congressional Projects of National Significance," worth $6.2 billion.

"Depending on how that works, obviously that could increase the amount of money coming into Maryland," he said.

The state is hoping for several big-ticket projects, including $100 million to repair and begin design work to replace the aging Woodrow Wilson drawbridge over the Potomac River on Interstate 95 and $100 million to complete repairs and build new overpasses along the chronically congested Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Representative Robert A. Roe, D-N.J., chairman of the public works panel, said that the "nickel for America," which would raise the federal gasoline tax to 19 cents, was needed "to rebuild the transportation structure of the country." If adopted, it would mark the second 5-cent increase in the federal gas tax in less than a year.

White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu said earlier this week that President Bush would veto any gas tax increase. But the sponsors of the bill said they still hoped to persuade Mr. Bush to see things their way.

The bill would provide $121.5 billion for highway construction and repairs and $32 billion for mass transit. That is about 50 percent more than the Bush administration's overall transportation plan, and twice what the White House proposed for mass transit.

The House bill would also permit state and local officials to use up to about $40 million of the highway money for transit or other non-highway projects. The Senate version of the transportation bill would give states the power to spend up to $45 billion in highway money as they liked.

Without amendments, the House bill could frustrate Maryland's hopes for a place at the table in a high-stakes poker game over the latest in transportation technology -- 300-mph magnetic levitation, or maglev, trains that float on and are propelled by high-power magnetic fields.

Maryland legislators, businessmen and government officials want the maglev line built between Washington and Baltimore -- part of the New York-Washington corridor, which according to Amtrak is the busiest passenger railroad in the Western Hemisphere.

The Senate bill, shepherded by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., includes $750 million for planning and design for a maglev project. But the House bill doesn't mention maglev.

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