Red Light on Highway Pork

You might think Congress would have more important things to do than arrange funding for specific road- and bridge-building projects back home. After all, we’re at war.

And, with the federal budget deficit expected to approach $500 billion this year, you also might think these federal lawmakers would be looking for ways to hold the line on spending. Alas, a quick glance at the highway bill the House of Representatives passed recently shows you’d be wrong on both counts. Local road projects seem to top most members’ agendas, and money is no object. The House bill would cost $283 billion over six years, almost $50 billion more than what the government is scheduled to collect in gas taxes in that period. Worse, it’s loaded with more than 3,000 “earmarks” totaling $10.7 billion.

That’s money lawmakers set aside for specific projects in specific districts, regardless of whether local officials need them or whether the federal government should fund them. This “transportation” money would be better spent on important projects. Indeed, for that amount we could pay for most of the military’s unfunded priorities.

Earmarks are a growing problem. In 1982, the highway bill contained only 10 of them. The 1991 bill carried 538. In 1998, they’d included 1,800. The current bill, a new low in fiscal responsibility, contains a record 3,251 earmarks. Even worse, many of the projects lawmakers inserted will do nothing to improve our roads. For example, the House bill directs $400,000 to rehabilitate a historic freight warehouse in the Erie Canal’s Inner Harbor and develop it into a transportation museum, $1.5 million for the Henry Ford museum and $4.2 million for pedestrian walkways and streetscaping projects in my old neighborhood of Western Springs, Ill. These earmarks help divert highway tax money away from true highway transportation needs and into the pockets of Washington lobbyists. Moreover, Heritage Foundation transportation analyst Ronald Utt noted recently, special interests — including lobbyists in the business of securing federal money for local projects — absorb as much as 40 percent of all federal highway spending, and that share is growing. Lawmakers are generally happy to spend as much as they can, because they see federal highway spending as a way to create jobs. Of course, having the federal government involved in road-building project is the least efficient way to do that. This merely takes tax money away from local motorists, filters it through many layers of bureaucracy, and only then sends some back to pay for local road projects. Plus the system is fundamentally unfair, since some states get back more than they put in, and others get back less.

As a result, Utt found that “$700 billion (inflation adjusted) of federal highway spending since 1970 has added only 7 percent capacity to our road system.” Think about that the next time you’re stuck in traffic, idling away gallons of gasoline. Unfortunately, the earmark bidding war is just beginning. Although the House bill already exceeds President Bush’s ceiling of $256 billion, it’s still less than the $318 billion bill passed by the Senate in February. And the Senate hasn’t started throwing in its own earmarks yet, so by the time the measure actually reaches President Bush, it’ll probably be larger still. We no can longer afford the current system. Because of years of direct congressional involvement in road-building projects, the federal system for creating highway bills has broken down. President Bush should show he’s in the driver’s seat by vetoing any transportation bill that costs more than his proposed limit. He should tell lawmakers to delete the earmarks and return control of transportation projects to local governments. That’s the best, and most affordable, way to clear up this bottleneck of taxpayer dollars.