Transportation grants pose test for GOP senators

AP News
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Posted: Mar 11, 2011 12:17 PM
Transportation grants pose test for GOP senators

In Salt Lake City, Mayor Ralph Becker envisions a new streetcar system with a mix of shops, restaurants and housing springing up along its two-mile route.

In Fort Worth, Texas, officials are focused on ending one of the nation's worst bottlenecks for freight trains and building a series of underpasses that would make life easier and safer for residents.

In Portsmouth, N.H., efforts are under way to upgrade a deteriorated bridge now closed to truck traffic.

The fate of these projects all hinge on whether the Senate goes along a House-passed spending bill that canceled money for most of the 75 public works projects the Obama administration announced grants for in October, at a cost of nearly $600 million. Without the federal dollars, most projects will never get off the ground or will face significant delays.

A large chunk of the money would go to states represented by GOP senators who have professed a deep devotion to spending less and who will play critical role in the budget debate as the Senate decides on its own spending plan for the fiscal year that runs through September.

Early indications are that several are not inclined to accept the House's decision to scale back the grants. One exception is Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who is ready to let the grants expire, including Salt Lake City's.

"With a $1.65 trillion deficit and $14 trillion national debt, there is no question we need to look at serious spending reductions. A logical place to start would be money that has been allocated but not spent," Lee said.

"It doesn't suggest the merits of a particular program or project is bad, though there are certainly many things in the federal budget that would be better handled at the local level," Lee said. "But it does suggest that, at the very least, perhaps we should wait to spend money on these programs and projects until after we have made significant progress on reducing our debt and getting our economy back on track."

Other GOP lawmakers are looking to retain the grants and cut elsewhere.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., wants Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to speed up the review process so her state can get its $20 million, one-fifth the cost of replacing a bridge from Portsmouth, N.H., to Kittery, Maine.

"This is the No. 1 transportation priority for New Hampshire and Maine as well," Ayotte said in an interview. "Because this bridge is in such disrepair, it's a huge public safety issue."

At a hearing this week, LaHood told Ayotte he would expedite the review. But he also tried to make clear to senators that going along with the House measure would mean no money for most projects. "We just want to make sure everybody understands that," LaHood said.

At $47.7 million, the most expensive grant in jeopardy would pay for streetcar line in Atlanta. The railroad project in Fort Worth comes in at No. 2, at $34 million. The streetcar line in Salt Lake City is No. 4, with a $26 million grant. Each state is represented by two GOP senators.

Senate Republicans voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday for the House spending bill, but in reality, they knew it would not pass the Democratic-majority chamber.

The real test will come when House and Senate negotiators write a budget that both chambers can support. It's then when money for the grants will survive or disappear.

"We're not just going to take the House's proposal. We'll weigh in," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who described the Fort Worth rail project as "an important issue for public safety."

The improvements would include a new rail track and signals, bridge renovations and construction of underpasses for pedestrians and bikers. Private rail companies have committed to spend more than $50 million, which would generate an estimated 900 to 1,200 jobs during construction. But that money is tied to the federal dollars coming to the city, according to Jungus Jordan, a Fort Worth councilman.

"What is one person's excessive spending is another's top priority," he said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is promoting his efforts to cut spending as he seeks a seventh term next year. But he also expressed reservations about not sending money back home for Salt Lake's streetcar system. He noted that the project was part of a competitive grant process.

"This is a rail system that really is needed and has been promised, and I think it ought to be granted," Hatch said.

No grant, no project, and a setback for the city's economy, the mayor said.

"There is no question in my mind that it's an economic catalyst unlike almost anything else," Becker said.

Block the grants, Democrats tell Republican lawmakers, and kill tens of thousands of jobs.

"We should focus on cuts that end waste and duplication, not ones that go to the bone and cause job losses," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Some of the largest projects are in some of the least populated states.

A new road overpass intended to alleviate rail tie-ups in Minot, N.D., would receive $14.1 million, paying for about two-thirds of the cost. About 43 trains a day move through the local rail yard, blocking traffic for 3.5 hours each day.

"I think that's an example of something that should be funded and I think in the final budget deal, it will be," said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.