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MONTGOMERY, Ill. (AP) -- President Bush on Wednesday signed a whopping $286.4 billion transportation bill, touting it as bringing the nation's transportation network "into the 21st century."
With fanfare, Bush signed the more than 1,000-page highway bill into law even though it was more costly than he preferred. It includes cash to bankroll some 6,000 pet projects for lawmakers in their home districts.
The setting for Bush's bill-signing ceremony and speech was a plant operated by Caterpillar Inc., which makes road-building equipment. For the president, it was his second trip away from his Texas ranch this week to highlight recently passed legislation.
"If we want people working in America, we got to make sure our highways and roads are modern," Bush said.
"I mean, you can't expect your farmers to be able to get goods to market if you don't have a good road system," he said. "You can't expect to get these Caterpillar products all around the United States if we don't have a good road system."
The House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to pass the six-year highway and mass transit legislation just before heading home for a summer break. They left Washington carrying promises of new highway and bridge projects, rail and bus facilities, and bike paths and recreational trails they secured for their states and districts.
The president left Texas during a downpour and ended up speaking under a bright sun at the plant where a crane sported a sign saying "Improving Highway Safety for America." The Chicago suburb is represented by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who introduced Bush at the event.
"I'm here to sign the highway bill because I believe by signing this bill, when it's fully implemented, there's going to be more demand for the machines you make here," Bush said, adding that a piece of Caterpillar equipment is used at his ranch.
"Because there's more demand for the machines you make here," he said, "there are going to be more jobs created around places like this facility."
Bush had threatened to veto the bill if the final version was too fat for his liking, and it took nearly two years for Congress to reach a compromise the White House would accept.
"There were a number of members of Congress who wanted a $400 billion highway bill," Al Hubbard, director of the National Economic Council at the White House, said Tuesday in defending the president's decision to accept the bill even though it was $30 billion more than Bush recommended.
"Because of this president, it is a $286 billion highway bill," he told reporters at a briefing following Bush's meeting with his economic team.
Bush said he's charged Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta to work to make sure that taxpayers get the most from the bill and that projects are delivered "on time and on budget."
Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy for Taxpayers for Common Sense, however, called the measure a "bloated, expensive bill" that the Bush should have vetoed.
"It is only fitting that the president is signing this legislation in Speaker Hastert's district, because the speaker's district has the third highest amount of highway pork in the nation," Ashdown said.
The bill contains more than 6,371 special projects valued at more than $24 billion, or about 9 percent of the bill's total cost, he said. The distribution of the money for these projects "is based far more on political clout than on transportation need," Ashdown said.
Alaska, the third-least populated state, for instance, got the fourth most money for special projects -- $941 million -- thanks largely to the work of its lone representative, House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young. That included $231 million for a bridge near Anchorage to be named "Don Young's Way" in honor of the Republican.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., nailed down $630 million, including $330 million for the Centennial Corridor Loop in Bakersfield, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Lawmakers backing the bill say projects were included on merit. They say money for infrastructure is well spent, especially considering that traffic congestion costs American drivers 3.6 billion hours of delay and 5.7 billion gallons of wasted fuel every year.
Substandard road conditions and roadside hazards are a factor in nearly one-third of the 42,000 traffic fatalities a year, officials say, and every $1 billion in highway construction creates 47,500 jobs.
But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of four senators who opposed the bill, said the estimated $24 billion lawmakers directed to special projects was "egregious." He has cited dozens of what he calls "interesting" projects. His favorite: $2.3 million for landscaping along the Ronald Reagan Freeway in California.
"I wonder what Ronald Reagan would say?" McCain asked about the fiscally conservative president.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-08-10-05 1033MDT