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Published: Friday, 4/2/2004

House's highway bill may delay Ohio work

FROM BLADE STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

Major Ohio highway projects could be delayed if a highway bill expected to pass today in the U.S. House of Representatives becomes law, instead of a more generous Senate version.

The Bush administration has threatened to veto either version, however, on the grounds that even the House bill is too expensive.

Under the bill the House passed yesterday, Ohio's federal highway allocation during fiscal 2005 would come up about $150 million short of what the administration of Ohio Gov. Bob Taft anticipated when it announced its Jobs and Progress highway plan last year, Brian Cunningham, an Ohio Department of Transportation spokesman, said yesterday.

The gap between federal funding and the Taft plan would narrow during the highway bill's six-year course, Mr. Cunningham said, but the net result would be that major new highways, like a four-lane U.S. 24 between Waterville and Antwerp likely would be pushed back several years from the schedule the governor proposed in his plan.

And unlike the Senate bill, which guarantees that by 2009, each state will receive federal highway funding equal to at least 95 percent of fuel-tax revenue collected within its boundaries, the House version requires only that the program be revisited in two years if Congress has taken no further action by then to help "donor" states, like Ohio and Michigan, that have long paid more into the system than they get back.

Ohio would get relief, Mr. Cunningham said, from the so-called "ethanol penalty" it suffers because the corn-based fuel additive, used heavily in Ohio, is taxed differently from normal gasoline.

Michigan is expected to lose about $100 million a year if the House bill, rather than the Senate bill, becomes law.

Ben Kohrman, the Michigan Department of Transportation's chief spokesman, said it was too soon to know how that would affect projects in the state's southeastern corner.

"It all depends on when the final bill passes and how much funding the final bill provides," Mr. Kohrman said.

Once the House adopts its version, the bill would go to a conference committee of both Congressional bodies.

Overall, the House version finances $275 billion in roads, bridges, and mass transit programs over a six-year period, while the Senate version funded $318 billion.

Neither is as large as the $375 billion package that Rep. Don Young (R., Alaska), chairman of the House transportation committee, advocated.

That amount was recommended in a U.S. Department of Transportation study as necessary to repair and modernize the nation's aging highway system.

"We are a nation stuck in traffic," Mr. Young said.

"Why some bean counters think that we can do this bill on the cheap when the infrastructure needs of our country are crying out for repairs is beyond me," said Rep. Steven LaTourette (R., Ohio), a committee member.

But the White House has proposed $256 billion, up from $218 billion in the last six-year highway program, and threatened to veto the House proposal.

The current temporary extension of the old highway program expires at the end of April, and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said yesterday that he would not agree to another extension.

It has been six months since the 1998-2003 highway bill expired, he said, and "these unnecessary delays have cost our nation roughly 100,000 jobs."

Governor Taft's highway program proposed spending $5 billion over 10 years to build or expand the state's major roads, half of which would come from a six-cent hike in Ohio's motor fuels tax, now being phased in over three years.

The other $250 million was expected to come from Washington, along with other federal funds the state receives for maintaining its existing highways.

In northwest Ohio, the program included a combined $405 million to build a four-lane U.S. 24 in Lucas, Henry, Defiance, and Paulding counties and complete the U.S. 30 freeway in Hancock and Wyandot counties, along with $116 million to modernize the congested I-75/I-475 junction in central Toledo.

A five-year plan drafted in December by the state Transportation Review Advisory Council penciled the first of the U.S. 30 projects to start next year, with work on U.S. 24 to begin in 2006 and the Toledo interchange in 2008.

All are listed in Tier I in the plan, which means the advisory council considered them ready to be built and affordable within the state's budget.

Mr. Cunningham said big-ticket projects such as those would be most likely to be pushed back if federal funding comes up shorter than expected.

"If they're in Tier I, they're going to be built," Mr. Cunningham said. "It just depends on the year." Funding for most fiscal 2005 projects already is committed, he added.



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