Tulsa World: Senate OKs Road Funds

Tulsa World 

Senate OKs Road Funds

by: JIM MYERS World Washington Bureau
9/11/2008  12:00 AM

Link to Article 

A lack of money in the Highway Trust Fund threatened to halt Interstate 44 work in Tulsa.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate approved a bill Wednesday to transfer $8 billion to a busted Highway Trust Fund and avoid a crisis that threatened a huge Interstate 44 project in Tulsa and other road work across Oklahoma.

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., called the vote great news for the state.

As the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Inhofe is a major player on transportation issues in Congress.

Inhofe had lobbied other Republicans on the bill and warned them blocking it could cost John McCain the presidential election in November.

Gary Ridley, director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, watched the vote from the Senate chamber.

"I couldn't be more elated,'' Ridley said afterwards.

Earlier this week, the Oklahoma Transportation Commission voted to postpone $80 million in highway construction projects for at least a month as federal officials grappled with funding.

Ridley, who was on Capitol Hill to testify on bridge legislation, was facing another major decision next week on whether to seek another delay on more contracts worth as much as $60 million.

Instead, he called the commission chairman about convening a special meeting.

"We are polling the rest of the commissioners to see what day next week that they can meet,'' Ridley said.

"We want to be ready to take action immediately to award those projects.''

If the situation had not been addressed before Congress adjourned for the year, eventually all scheduled road projects in the state would have been at risk.

Ridley said at least $46 million was expected to be on the commission's list possibly as early as October for the I-44 project in Tulsa.

Wednesday's voice vote broke an impasse that developed quickly after U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced last Friday the trust fund would run out of money sooner than expected.

Without congressional intervention, Peters warned, states would begin receiving reimbursement funding on a prorated basis and on a slower schedule.

The Bush administration also dropped its opposition to the House bill that addressed the funding issue by transferring the $8 billion from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund.

Still, Republicans objected to a quick vote on the measure in the Senate.

They wanted the chance to amend the bill.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he was one of those who wanted a debate and votes on amendments but in the end "grudgingly" gave his support to let the bill move forward.

During debate, Coburn ticked off a number of areas, ranging from United Nations funding to payments made by various agencies, that could be addressed.

Inhofe said that while he agrees with his Republican colleagues' concerns, the bill on the floor was not the right vehicle to address them.

"Now is not the time to stall congressional legislation that restores the $8 billion,'' he said.

"The fact is, a significant number of jobs depend on Congress' immediate action.''

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, cited figures indicating 6,009 jobs in Oklahoma were at stake.

The House is expected to take up the amended bill soon and send it on to the White House for the president's signature.