Political parties and ideology alone don't determine what goes
on in the nation's capital. The upcoming battle royal over highway
funding is a reminder that regional interests are at least as
In a huge continental nation such as the United States, clashes
between varying regions are never far from the surface. Regional
coalitions form, split apart, and reform, depending on the issue.
But nothing is guaranteed to stir up tensions more than tussles
over who's going to get federal money - Washington's famous pork.
The granddaddy of pork and regional politics this year goes by
the unlikely name of ISTEA (pronounced "ice tea"), the Intermodal
Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. The complex law,
which is up for renewal this year, determines how billions in
federal gas taxes are doled out to states and cities for such
job-creating projects as building new roads, fixing old bridges,
and subsidizing commuter rail and buses. Hearings on the measure
resume today and continue over the next two weeks.
In state and regional congressional delegations, the developing
donnybrook is sweeping aside party divisions.
"It's very, very rare that an issue unites Democrats and
Republicans as much as this issue has ... both in the House and in
the Senate," says Sen. John Breaux (D) of Louisiana, who wants the
funding formula changed.
Until 1991, federal highway funds were distributed using arcane
formulas and old postal routes. ISTEA modified these formulas,
which heavily favored Northeastern states, the former population
center. It also provided money directly to cities aimed at helping
them implement mass-transit measures - to help comply with the
Clean Air Act.
But much of the old system remained. Under ISTEA, states receive
an annual chunk of highway funds based on a calculation so complex
it might strain the abilities of even the best calculus student.
Among the factors taken into account are a state's interstate
highway miles, the state of repair of its bridges, the severity of
its air pollution levels, and the amount of federal highway money
the state has received in the recent past.
This number is then adjusted further by several financial
guarantees, such as one that holds each state get a minimum
percentage of the overall highway pot.
"ISTEA was based on a continuation of funding formulas from the
1987 Highway Act, which included a hodgepodge of formula
adjustments that had been made over the previous 60 years,"
Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton (D) complained at a recent congressional
hearing. That means about 25 "donor states," mostly in the South,
pay the federal government more than they get back in highway funds
- often far less than the 90 cents on the dollar ISTEA was
supposed to ensure.
Now a bipartisan coalition is sponsoring legislation to rewrite
the formula so that states would get back at least 95 percent of
gas-tax revenues distributed by Washington. …