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Support for gas tax accelerating Grass-roots effort boosts chances of House transportation bill's passage.


WASHINGTON -- With two weeks remaining before Congress reconvenes, a new grass-roots effort is under way to focus attention on where the House left off: the nickel-a-gallon gas tax that would fund billions of dollars worth of road and transit projects nationwide.

Although the thought of a tax increase generally makes most people run for cover, a coalition of highway and mass transit advocates, mayors and county officials, organized labor and manufacturers called a news conference to grab the limelight last week. They announced their support for H.R. 2950, the House surface transportation bill that calls for such a 5-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax boost.

"Without the 'Nickel for America,' public transit will be unable to fully achieve its mission in the '90s," said Jack R. Gilstrap, executive vice president of the American Public Transportation Association and a member of the new Coalition for an Efficient National Transportation System (CENTS).

Calling for a huge increase in mass transit projects, the House highway bill would also, Gilstrap added, "begin to reverse highway congestion, cut air pollution and save petroleum energy."

Members of CENTS vowing to drum up support for the highway bill and its gas tax include the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Counties, Marylanders for Efficient and Safe Highways (MESH) and more than 15 other local and national transportation advocacy groups as well as manufacturing organizations and unions.

Top on the list of legislation facing Congress when it returns this month is the Surface Transportation Infrastructure Act of 1991, a five-year, $153.5 billion bill that would reauthorize federal highway and mass transit programs. The proposed gas tax would raise about $33 billion to help pay the cost of the programs.

Although a House vote on the bill was scheduled before the August recess, a perceived loss of support for the gas tax paired with a last-minute move to divert a portion of the "Nickel for America" to deficit reduction led the House Democratic leadership to pull the measure from immediate consideration.

The chief sponsor of the measure, House Public Works and Transportation Committee Chairman Robert A. Roe, D-N.J., has vowed that the bill will pass with the "Nickel for America" intact.

Although Roe was not directly involved in the creation of the coalition, and merely sent a letter of support to the announcement of the group's formation, CENTS officials admit that it was at his suggestion that the group organized.

"He held a press conference the day after the bill was tabled, and had a meeting with industry groups immediately afterward," said T. Peter Ruane, president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association and CENTS organizer.

"He did ask for grass-roots support at that meeting,"said Ruane. "And this coalition is a response to that."

Among those in favor of the gas tax was Bob Latham, who serves as executive director of MESH and executive director for the Maryland Highway Contractors Association in Glen Burnie.

"The House bill provides some flexibility for highway and mass transit funding -- both of which are sorely needed in Maryland," said Latham. "Although we are a highway -- and bridge-oriented group, we understand all of these are badly needed."

He added, "If the federal bill were to pass it would take some of the pressure off Maryland."

Projects that could benefit, according to Latham, include the extension of Md. 100 from Howard County to Anne Arundel County around Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and completion of Interstate 97 from the Baltimore Beltway to U.S. 50 near Annapolis.

"We believe a Nickel for America is more than a transportation issue," Roe declared. "A $33 billion investment in the transportation infrastructure will create 2 million jobs and save billions of dollars in wasted fuel, lost time and vehicle damage."

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