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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 13, 1997
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY

The Briefing Room

1:15 P.M. EST

MS. GLYNN: Hi, everyone. Mike McCurry's briefing will be delayed until about 1:30 p.m., we think. But in the meantime, the Deputy Secretary of Transportation Mortimer Downey is here to answer any question about NEXTEA.

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: Good afternoon. Let me just say a few words about NEXTEA, which is the service transportation reauthorization bill that President Clinton and Secretary Slater announced this morning. It's a strong commitment to the role of transportation in the nation's economy and it reaches out to meet other goals. It will continue to fulfill the promise to rebuild America, even as we're moving to a balanced budget.

Over the past several years, the President has kept his promise, increasing federal infrastructure investment by 21 percent, to an average of $25.5 billion a year. And that stopped the deterioration of highways and transit systems. We will continue that commitment under NEXTEA. Not only will our investment improve our transportation system's efficiency, but it will serve as a generator of prosperity, creating jobs in and of itself.

NEXTEA will also benefit the economy by helping reduce the barriers for those who move from welfare rolls to payrolls, giving them affordable, convenient transportation to jobs, training and support services. We're proposing a six-year, $600 million program to support flexible, innovative transportation alternatives such as van pools to get people to where jobs are.

NEXTEA will also help reduce the tragic toll of highway deaths even in the face of growing traffic by programs that focus on the best safety payoffs -- safety belts, child restraints, reducing drunk and drugged driving, and continuing research into safer vehicles. And most importantly, NEXTEA will continue our commitment that investment in roads and transit can go hand in hand with enhancing the evaluation. As the President said this morning, this is one of the most important environmental bills to be considered by this Congress.

NEXTEA's predecessor, ISTEA, made progress in rebuilding America and in making our transportation safer and more efficient. As we worked with ISTEA, we listened to our partners around the country in state and local government as they told us how the programs could be made even better. And NEXTEA is the result of those listening sessions. We look forward to working with Congress on the coming months.

And I'll be glad to answer your questions.

Q We understand that the President's proposal lifts the restrictions on states putting tolls on interstate roads. Can you tell us how that works and explain some of the logic behind it?

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: That's one of the things we heard as we went around the country, that state and local governments are looking for ways to increase the amount of investment that they can make in new and expanded and safer transportation systems. They are now not permitted to put tolls other interstate highways. They can put tolls on bridges and tunnels that are on the interstate system, but not the highway sections themselves. So under the President's proposal, the states would have that option. We don't mandate it, we don't tell them they have to do it, there are legal restrictions as to how high those tolls could be, but we would give them that flexibility if that's a way they want to serve their public by increasing the amount of construction they can do.

Q Doesn't that increase the price of travel and every other thing? I mean, why are you doing that?

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: We want to see better, safer transportation systems with greater capacity. Those need to be paid for in one way or another, and tolls would actually allocate those costs to the users.

Q And they would be able to keep the money?

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: The states or local governments could keep the money, but only if it's reinvested into transportation -- and it would be their judgment, not ours.

Q The federal government would keep none of it?

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: The federal government would not. The federal government paid for 90 percent of the original highway construction, but the state and local governments would get the benefit if they chose to put tolls on those systems.

Q What about the restriction, you said there was a legal restriction on how much -- what is that?

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: In 1991 the law was changed to take it out of the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Transportation and turn it over to the courts. As I recall, the standard is just and reasonable. So anyone who was putting tolls in place would have to show that they were just and reasonable.

Q Do you have any estimates at all about how much --

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: I don't know that even a single state will do this. But we believe that in some parts of the country, especially in congested metropolitan areas where the interstate system is not just the way to link cities together, but is really their travel pattern to and from downtown, they would consider it.

Q You said you heard this from around the states. So which states are the most interested?

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: We don't have any specific applications at this time.

Q What was the impetus, then, if there isn't a groundswell for it?

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: We want to give a lot of flexibility, as this bill provides for choice of transportation modes, choice of ways to finance it.

Q You're really encouraging it, though, aren't you?

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: We would like to see states have the ability to make these decisions; we're not saying they should or shouldn't put tolls on the roads.

Q Do you have any indication that Congress is going to follow through on this bill and, if so, on what time line?

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: We know that Congress will be active on this bill because all of our highway and transit programs expire on September 30th.

Q But will they take your lead on it?

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: They will, I think, take our proposal seriously as they put their bill together. There will be a lot of arguments about how much money and who gets the money and what programs it goes for. But there will be a bill before the end of the year. The states and local governments need this to keep their investments going.

Q Senators Moynihan and Roth have a proposal to take a half a cent from the 4.3 cent transportation fuel tax and give it to Amtrak for capital expenditures. Does the administration support that idea?

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: We have a variation of it in our bill. We do support Amtrak receiving more in the way of capital and we do support it coming from the highway use tax, but not from the 4.3 cents that was allocated for deficit reduction.

Q Are you proposing any changes in the funding formula? And could you talk a little bit about the environment protections, especially the wetlands issue?

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: Yes. We are proposing changes to the funding formula. We are updating the factors to include today's conditions in terms of population, in terms of transportation needs, in terms of use of the system, and with some factors to assure that states that generate a lot of the fuel tax get a substantial portion of it back, or states that have benefitted in the past are not abruptly dropped. So there will be some changes to the formula. We think they meet a middle ground between a number of factions that are now arguing.

On the environment side, the bill includes $1.3 billion for the congestion management air quality program each year. It also makes eligible such activities as restoring wetlands and it strongly supports what we call transportation enhancements, which include bike trails, pedestrian facilities, historic preservation, scenic byways, and the like. So there's a strong environment component to this bill.

Q Mr. Secretary, last week your Department held negotiations with Japanese counterparts on a shipping trade case. I wonder if those negotiations prompted any reconsideration of the decision to exact sanctions on Japanese shipping companies April 14, possibly, pending further negotiations.

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: We are continuing to -- the Federal Maritime Commission will be the ones that would put those sanctions in place -- expect to continue the sanctions if there are not changes in the port practices in Japan. We had a good discussion with the Japanese government about those port practices and about how they hurt not only American shipping, but, in fact, are hurting Japanese shipping interests as well. They've gone back to see what might be done, but at the moment it still looks like the sanctions would be put in place.

Q I've got a question about the -- further question about the tolls. How would these work? For example, could something like this be put into practice by, say, the District of Columbia?

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: The District of Columbia, under this proposal, could on the interstate systems within the District find a way to collect tolls. There are, obviously, considerable technical issues -- finding environmentally sound ways to collect the tolls. We expect, should states go towards toll collection, they will probably do it electronic fashion so that there is not the kind of backups that we all remember on the Connecticut Turnpike or facilities like that.

Q But, I mean, in essence, a state could simply establish a line of monitors or whatever over a stretch of the interstate highway and require --

MR. DOWNEY: Require those who were passing -- again, if the toll structure, both in its level and who it's applied to was just and reasonable.

Q How would they have -- or to whom would they have to justify that?

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: To the courts. That's a standard that exists in the law. They would have to justify to the USDOT that the proceeds were being used in accordance with our proposal, which is reinvestment into the transportation system.

Q Does this require congressional approval or can it be done with a White House mandate?

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: No, this would require congressional approval. This would be part of their consideration in the legislation. And they'll hear, I'm sure, from states. They'll also hear from user groups and others who would be opposed. Like anything in this bill, it will be -- the outcome will be the working of the legislative process.

Q Do you have any state-by-state breakdown for the amount of money states --

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: Yes, we do. We have a handout, which we can give you, on how each individual state fares. Just in summary, virtually every state would receive more dollars under this legislation than they received under the ISTEA bill that's about to expire. As to relative allocations, about half the states will get a little more than they got in the past and about half the states would get a little less than they have in the past. I think that compares favorably to some of the plans that are now being considered on the Hill, which would radically shift funds from one group of states to another. This we don't think is the final formula -- that will come out of the legislative process -- but I think it shows that a formula can be developed that meets the interests of all of America.

Q One other toll question. Is it the administration's hope that the state tolls would be able to replace federal expenditures on the transportation system?

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: No, we're not putting this forward in the thought that it would replace federal expenditures; we put it forward in the thought that states need a lot of resources, state, federal, and other, to keep up with the aging of their transportation systems. This could be one more way to raise those dollars. Gas taxes are one way. Other tax forms are another way. But user fees are a good way to get at a fair allocation of those who benefit from the system.

Q But the federal government would not decrease --


Q -- its investment as an offset?

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: No, the federal government is putting in a base level of investment, but we do feel we have analyses that show more investment could improve the economy. It's more than we can afford in a balanced budget world, but we think there are good projects out there that, if they went in place, would serve the public and would increase economic activity.

Q And these would be earmarked for state facilities, as opposed to replacing federal maintenance --

DEPUTY SECRETARY DOWNEY: These would be -- these resources would be uses as part of the state's program to enhance its surface transportation investments.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 1:25 P.M. EST