U.S. senators OK funding for roads

Posted: Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The U.S. Senate approved a federal transportation bill that would spend $295 billion over a six-year period, including $427.3 million annually for Alaska road projects.

That's $11 billion more than the amount that the House of Representatives approved in March.

The Senate action Tuesday did not designate funding for specific projects, whereas the House bill included earmarks such as $15 million toward Alaska's proposed $281 million road from Juneau to Skagway.

President Bush threatened to veto the transportation bill's reauthorization if the Senate's $11 billion increase passes out of Congress, saying the spending is irresponsible during a time of war and national debt.

"It sounds to me like Congress is going to try to push the envelope as much as it can," said Alaska Department of Transportation spokesman John Manly.

But a veto of the bill could delay work on some Alaska road projects, Manly added.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan reiterated the veto threat Tuesday, saying the president was "very serious" about following a fiscally responsible budget.

A conference committee probably will produce a final version of the highway bill later this summer, and its membership likely would include Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

"We would expect an awful lot (of Alaska projects) put in the House version to stay in it," Manly said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the Senate bill would provide $427.3 million each year for Alaska road projects over the life of the bill.

The House version of the bill provided a total of $722 million in federal earmarks for 39 Alaska projects.

In addition to the $15 million it earmarked for the Juneau Access Road, the House earmarked $223 million for the Gravina Bridge near Ketchikan, $200 million for the Knik Arm Bridge near Anchorage and $2.3 million for the Bradfield Canal Road to Canada.

"These massive earmarks do little to address Alaska's real transportation needs," said Emily Ferry, director of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, based in Juneau.

Her group advocates for maintaining existing roads and the state ferry system rather than build new roads and bridges.

The Senate approved its highway bill Tuesday afternoon with an 89-11 vote, rejecting an amendment that would have brought down the level of spending to the House's proposed $284 billion.

The Senate, in adding its $11 billion increase, said it had come up with new revenues for the highway trust fund - the principal source of money for federal highway grants to the states - without adding to the national debt.

In addition to granting money to states for roads and bridges, the bill would provide more than $50 billion for public transit, recreational road programs and highway safety.

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