Leaders of a Senate-House conference committee on the highway bill have made little progress toward reconciling their differences, despite three weekend meetings.
Conferees had planned to release a list of 60 points of agreement at a conference session Tuesday. But efforts to reach an accord on those preliminary issues stumbled over a Senate pilot project to place tolls on roads near five areas of extreme congestion.Rep. Robert A. Roe, D-N.J., chairman of the conference committee, promised the House would produce a "hybrid" bill Thursday that he hoped would resolve disputes over the size of the bill and the formulas used to divide transport
funds among the states.
But agreement with the Senate is likely to be difficult, because of the House bill's inclusion of about 450 special projects in members' districts and its call for an extension through 1999 of half of last year's fuel tax increase of 5 cents a gallon.
A testy Mr. Roe complained: "We don't have time to go over every period." Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, D-N.Y., vice chairman of the committee, agreed and expressed the hope that a final bill could be completed by Thanksgiving.
Mr. Roe also discounted the possibility that an interim bill might be passed to extend the highway program that expired Oct. 1. "There is no intent upon the House or this chair in any way to extend this bill," he said.
The controversial Senate pilot project would place tolls on roads near five as-yet-undetermined metropolitan areas in an attempt to relieve congestion. A Senate aide said tolls could end up on an interstate highway.
Truckers and highway interests vigorously oppose such a move, arguing that it would be double taxation. They argue that highway users already contribute a large share of federal highway funds through fuel taxes.
A House aide said a compromise might permit tolls in the five areas to be placed on federally aided roads other than interstates.
Another dispute involving the toll project concerns whether the funds raised would be dedicated exclusively to highway projects. The House favors that, but the Senate would allow the funds to be spent on intermodal projects such as improving road access to a port or a mass transit station.
Those who hope a final bill will be drafted soon could take some solace that lawmakers from both chambers revealed a sense of urgency in their comments at the session on Tuesday.
Mr. Roe spoke of the need to pass a highway bill, calling it a "counter- cyclical jobs bill." Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., said the highway bill could do more for the economy than a tax bill.
A few states have begun to run out of federal funds for transport projects, and some states complain that the federal government is exacerbating the recession by continuing to collect transport taxes but not releasing federal transport funds to the states.