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Tale of a Skinny Bridge and Congress's Last Big Cash Pot

Most locals have learned to grin and bear it, but for newcomers and tourists, a trip over the Grace Memorial Bridge is a harrowing way to leave Charleston.

Built in 1929 and designed for the model-T Ford, the 1-1/2-mile structure towers precariously over the quaint South Carolina city. Cars swerve up, down, then up again, thumping with each steel girder. Dubbed a "ticking time bomb" by the city's mayor, the one-way bridge rated a 4 out of 100 in a state safety report.

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"If you ride across it, it's very exciting," says Larry Duke of the state transportation department, noting how its two skinny lanes leave "very little room for error."

But the state lacks the $400 million needed to replace the relic, partly because it was one of the biggest losers in the last Capitol Hill battle over distribution of highway funds.

But that could change this year.

Congress is busy rewriting its highway spending plan, a task that occurs only about once every five years - and takes about five more to recover from. Always a notorious time-killer, it has been called the single most contentious matter this Congress. It's "the mother of all battles," says Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York.

At stake: $120 billion that lawmakers must divvy up by Oct. 1 - one of the largest pots of money left to Congress's discretion. With a single stroke of the pen, Congress can allot twice as many dollars to a spacious Western state as a crowded seaport state. Or not.

IN the warring congressional family, members have divided into three regional camps: the Northeast, the Rocky Mountain West, and the South. The first two groups currently receive more highway funds than their states pay in federal gasoline tax; the opposite is true for the latter.

Recent history dictates the South faces an uphill struggle. In both 1991 and 1986, the highway formula was altered only modestly after months of sparring. The reason: The Northeast and West begin with an established winning coalition.

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But Southerners have thrown that calculus into a tizzy this year, partly with a zealotry likened by one foe to "evangelism." They have also recruited virtually every leading Republican in Congress - most of whom are Southerners.

With all three sides well short of majorities, the final product is anyone's guess. The only certainties, experts say, are that Congress will again miss the Oct. 1 deadline and that the process will not be pretty.

South Carolina has nowhere to go but up. Motorists there paid $352,605 in gasoline taxes in 1995 and received $198,150 - about 56 cents on the dollar. The state has gotten back 71 cents on every dollar since 1991 - a ratio that left it 50th out of 50, according to one report.

"The Revolutionary War was based on the core belief of America - no taxation without representation," says Rep. Mark Sandford, Charleston's Republican congressman. "What we have now is a funding formula that is fundamentally unfair."

"Equity" and "fairness" have become catch-phrases for Southerners. Their leading plan would scrap the formula - a mind-boggling series of 13 calculations based largely on historic funding levels - and require all states receive at least 95 percent of what they pay in gas taxes.

The result: Northeastern states such as New York and Massachusetts would lose millions to Florida, Texas, South Carolina, and other states that receive less money than they pay in. "Finally we could prop up our bridge with the money they've always owed us," says Congressman Sandford.

Northeastern lawmakers say the Southern proposal would hurt the environment by encouraging gas guzzling. Besides, they point out, the current formula justly recognizes the Northeast's primary handicap: an aging, sagging infrastructure that requires more repairs than the sleek highways of the more temperate South.

Moreover, highway spending balances out inequities in other federal programs, Northeasterners say. The region sees little of the billions spent on agricultural subsidies, military bases, and disaster relief that Washington doles out to the rest of the country.

Not to be outdone, Western states, too, have entered the fray.

Politicians from Montana and other low-density states protest that "fairness" should account for their states' vast land tracts - distances that mean they spend more per capita on highways.

Notably, the strategizing is bipartisan. Once again, the highway brawl shows that when it comes to bridges and roads, political ideology - even the anti-big-government philosophy of House Republicans - takes a back seat.

Meanwhile, the Grace Memorial Bridge still provide thrills and chills to all who cross it.

Replacing the bridge is on South Carolina's priority list, but the price tag is a jaw-dropping $400 million. With an annual budget of only about $4 billion, the state can afford just a few crumbs to replace floorbeams and make emergency repairs.

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