Highways on Hold

Highways on Hold

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

In the far northwest corner of North Dakota, the new Four Bears Bridge would replace a decaying, nearly 50-year-old span that sits precariously over Lake Sakakawea.

Further south, down the Missouri River, planners are standing by ready to add two lanes to Interstate 70, a main artery in the heartland that carries huge volumes of cars and trucks on four lanes between St. Louis and Kansas City.

Separated by 1,100 miles and seemingly worlds away from Congress and the White House, the Four Bears Bridge and the I-70 expansion are two of perhaps hundreds of projects where rhetoric meets reality. It''s where, officials say, the Washington debate over the highway bill isn''t just a political fight but a battle over funds that local communities believe are the key to economic growth.

They are also two projects that proponents of greater highway construction say will be endangered if Congress takes a political escape route away from a six-year transportation spending plan and opts for a two-year bill.

According the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the cost of passing anything less than a six-year highway and transit reauthorization bill would be $2.1 billion in projects delayed and 90,000 lost jobs across the United States.

"Short-term extension, rather than passage of a six-year bill, will compound state budget problems and result in delayed projects, additional project costs and lost jobs," AASHTO wrote in a report last September and updated in February.

Despite an improving national economy, the mounting federal deficit has thrust the highway bill into a high profile, high stakes battle in this election year between a White House trying to demonstrate a hard line on budget matters and a Congress torn between loyalty to a Republican president and lawmakers'' inborn need to bring home federal dollars.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, is bargaining down from the $375 billion, six-year bill he introduced last fall, according to committee aides. The Senate passed a six-year, $318 billion bill in February.

Young reportedly is entertaining the idea of cutting up to $100 billion out of the bill, which has bipartisan support among House Transportation Committee members. Young and ranking committee Democrat James Oberstar, D-Minn., advocated raising the federal gas tax by five cents to fund highway bill expansion. Always controversial, the gas tax proposal is considered dead in an election year.

The fight now is about trying to pass a bill in which the funding level is at least close to the $318 billion in the Senate bill. President Bush is holding firm on a threat to veto any bill that would spend more than the $256 billion over six years that the administration supports.

Unveiled as Congress took a brief break at the start of the month, a potential compromise would spend $90 billion over two years. State highway planners say they need a longer horizon to plan out big-scale projects and ensure financing is in place.

In North Dakota, for instance, the state''s Department of Transportation is determined to finish its $55 million Four Bears Bridge. But only a year into the project, officials say they would have to cut back on other improvements around the state to complete the three-year construction if the highway bill is delayed much longer or comes in at a low funding level.

"If the highway bill is lower or is delayed, we''ll have to identify some projects that could supplement it because we will complete the bridge," North Dakota Department of Transportation Director of Transportation Programs Tim Horner said.

Near New Town, N.D., the bridge is replacing an obsolete bridge that opened in 1955. The narrow bridge, which spans a frozen river this time of year, connects two sides of the Fort Berthold Reservation, home to three Native American tribes.

In Jefferson City, Mo., state department of transportation officials worry about how they will pay for four major bridge and interstate projects they say the state sorely needs.

The most pressing project is rebuilding the entire length of I-70, which crosses the state from St. Louis to Kansas City. I-70 is a major trucking route, and its four lanes are not enough to carry the volume of traffic the highway now carries.

"That''s something we would love to get going on sooner rather than later," Missouri DOT spokesman Jeff Briggs said. "And a project of that magnitude would require some assistance from federal funding. And we''re kind of at a standstill because of lack of funding."

Upgrading I-70 to a six-lane highway would cost at least $3 billion, according to preliminary estimates. It is the kind of money that can only come from the federal government. Briggs said Missouri highway projects usually get at least an 80 percent federal share, but that can go up to 90 percent.

Missouri also has its sights on other big-ticket transportation projects, including a new bridge across the Mississippi River in downtown St. Louis and improvement or expansion of a bridge across the Missouri River in Kansas City.

American Road and Transportation Builders Association President and CEO Pete Ruane says Congress is kowtowing to a White House threat in its prolonged debate over the bill. "The threat of a presidential veto should not unduly influence Congress from doing the right thing," Ruane told an International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association meeting. "Political will is, in my opinion, the missing ingredient in the current stewpot."