Automobile, truck and highway organizations are condemning the Senate's version of the $105 billion highway bill designed to pay for road, bridge and mass transit programs.
Crafted by Sen. Daniel Moynihan, D-N.Y., the legislation proposes a major change in the types of transportation projects the federal government would finance during the next five years.The biggest bone of contention is an $89 billion pot of money - the Highway Trust Fund - that is collected from motorists and truckers through a 14 cent-a-gallon federal gasoline tax and 15 cent-a-gallon diesel fuel tax.
Since 1956, nearly all federal Highway Trust Fund monies have been used to build, expand and renovate highways and bridges, especially the nearly complete 44,000-mile interstate highway system. A small amount - a penny per gallon - was used to build and operate subways, light-rail systems and bus lines.
Moynihan says the country is entering a new transportation era and Congress ought to give half of the Highway Fund - nearly $45 billion - to state and local governments and let them spend the money on any transportation systems they deem worthwhile.
"I am not afraid of allowing the states and cities to optimize their transportation systems," Moynihan said in an interview.
He says big cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas and Los Angeles will opt for new or expanded subway lines and light-rail systems; medium-size cities will establish or expand bus services, and smaller communities will spend their money on roads and highways.
In a special provision, Moynihan earmarks $750 million for planning the country's first magnetic levitation passenger train system - that is, high speed trains that would run on magnetic tracks.
Moynihan also advocates allocating funds for preserving freight railroad lines, converting abandoned railroad right-of-ways to bike and walking trails, restoring and maintaining historic rail sites and canals, providing bike racks for urban dwellers and expanding the number of scenic pulloffs along major highways.
"We have poured enough concrete," Moynihan said. "We have finished the highway structure of the country."
That doesn't mean that no new roads will be built, he added, but there's no need for a massive expansion of the interstate system or huge expenditures for non-interstate highways.
Moynihan's proposals are anathema to 10 Washington-based highway user organizations, particularly the American Trucking Associations.
ATA president Thomas Donohue calls the bill "a terrible mistake" that pirates money from the Highway Trust Fund for non-highway programs.
"The bill is totally unacceptable," Donohue said during a recent meeting of the 10 groups opposed to the plan.
Moynihan's ideas also were ripped by Frank Francois, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
"The nation's highway system doesn't adequately serve Americans now, " he said. "We need to add mileage to the interstate highway system, and we badly need a great many two-lane local roads."
The states, counties and cities need money to build new roads and expand and maintain existing roads and bridges, Francois added.
Of all Moynihan's ideas, the one that most irritates the highway organizations is the proposal to build a "mag-lev" train line.
"I just can't see building a mag-lev with highway money," said Robert Farris, a trucking association vice president who headed the Federal Highway Administration in the Reagan administration.
Farris said subways, light-rail systems and mag-levs are the most expensive forms of transportation ever conceived.
"None of the new . . . systems - in Atlanta, Miami, San Francisco, Sacramento and Washington - have ever met their ridership estimates," he noted. "They all cost a mint to build and they're all heavily subsidized by federal and local governments."
The bottom line of Moynihan's bill, Farris added, is that with $45 billion of highway funds diverted to other programs and proj-ects, state and local governments will be forced to maintain far too many miles of roads and highways with too few dollars.