Congress Should Redirect Highway Earmarks to Katrina Relief

Early reports of the extraordinary devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans and scores of towns on the nearby Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida indicate a disaster of epic proportions that will impact the lives of hundreds of thousands for months, if not years.

Homes have been destroyed, public infrastructure wrecked, businesses closed and thousands of hard-working, modest-income people—many already living paycheck to paycheck—are now out of work and will soon confront the great costs of rebuilding their lives.

Private citizens across the country have chosen to make personal sacrifices to help these people in need. Publicly spirited members of Congress should join their constituents and make a sacrifice of their own—take some of the funding doled out in the recent highway bill to low-priority earmarked projects and redirect it to rebuild the infrastructure devastated by Katrina.

Help New Orleans

The outpouring of support for the victims of Katrina has been extraordinary. As the residents of New Orleans face lingering flooding that could keep them away for months, millions of Americans are coming forward to help them put their lives back together. From a relief drive organized by a Girl Scout Troop in San Jacinto, Tex., to the mighty Salvation Army, whose 100 mobile canteens with the combined capacity of serving 500,000 meals per day are headed south, ordinary Americans across the country are rallying to the cause and digging into their wallets and purses to fund a voluntary relief effort whose dimensions the world has rarely seen.

American business, too, is gearing up for the relief effort. Wal-Mart, BP and Abbot are just a few of the companies that have promised a million dollars or more apiece. Popular entertainers are digging deep into their pockets. Sean “Puffy” Combs, Jay-Z, and Celine Dion are among the first to donate a million dollars apiece. Lesser-known entertainers are getting into the act. For example, the owners of a minor league baseball team in Prince William County, Va., will donate half the gate of a weekend game to flood relief. Other nations, too, are helping out, and one of the first offers of cash assistance came from the Red Cross Society of China.

At last count, voluntary financial contributions to the relief effort totaled more than $100 million.

Lesson for Congress

As Americans lock arms, open their wallets, and head south to the Mississippi Delta to give what aid and comfort they can—much as they did after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Arlington, Va.—there is a lesson in this response that the U.S. Congress should consider as it works on much-needed relief for the victims and their damaged towns.

Are members of Congress prepared to be as generous with their “own” resources as they are with the taxes of their constituents, who have already written checks to the institutions now helping the beleaguered citizens of the Gulf Coast?

If Congress follows its usual pattern, there will be much debate about how much money to send and where to send it, and in the end, packages totaling some tens of billions of dollars will be passed and signed into the law. But these are extraordinary times, and Congress must rise above the “usual pattern” and show the American people that they too can be just as generous in their own personal sacrifice as their constituents.

One way to show such sacrifice and resolve would be to agree to shift at least half of the $25 billion dollars that the recently enacted highway bill (SAFETEA-LU) dedicates to frivolous pork-barrel spending in local communities around the nation.

As Mississippi and Louisiana confront the replacement of dozens of wrecked bridges, is it possible that Rep. Don Young (R.-Alaska) could give up one of the two $200 million dollar bridges he secured for his state? Perhaps Alaskans could go without the one that will serve a town of just fifty people, who now ride a ferry? Such an example of leadership and sacrifice by a senior member like Rep. Young could persuade the rest of the Congress to follow his lead and give up there own wasteful earmarks and pork until the $12 billion or $13 billion dollars is redirected to those whose need is dire.

As was widely reported following the passage of SAFETEA-LU, the bill contained more than 6,000 earmarks. Many of these became objects of national ridicule, thanks to the national media, and rightly so because they had little to do with building necessary transportation infrastructure. But today, in the face of Katrina’s vast destruction, these earmarks are no laughing matter when their funding could be redirected to begin to rebuild the infrastructure of the Gulf States.

Sacrificing Pork Projects

As Congress considers the vast suffering in Louisiana, is it possible that Richmond, Ind., could give up its $3 million dollar hiking trail? Could Newark, N.J., pass on its $2 million earmark for Waterfront Pedestrian and Bicycle Access? And can Hoboken, N.J., do likewise with the $8 million planned for its Waterfront Walkway? What about the $3 million that Modesto, Calif., expects to get for its Rails to Trails program, the $5 million Bridgeport, Conn., grabbed for an Intermodal Transportation facility, the $5 million Delaware will get to improve the Auto Tour Route at the Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge, and the $6.5 million that state will receive for the Wilmington Train Station Restoration? In the face of genuine need, don’t these expensive projects seem comparatively frivolous?

The earmarks go on and on like this, page after page in SAFETEA-LU. The more than 6,000 earmarks in it add up to nearly $25 billion in money that could now be better used for a more urgent purpose than flower gardens, replica sailing ships, and bus museums. members of Congress may want these projects, but Katrina’s victims need the funding more.

The next time you walk the streets of New York City, keep an eye out for police cars, and when you see one, take a minute to see if there is an inscription on its side. If that car was provided to the NYPD by the citizens of a town in America, as many were after 9/11, that town will be named on it by the thankful citizens of the Big Apple. If Congress puts the nation’s transportation earmarks to better use, years from now the people of the Big Easy may drive across a new bridge bearing a bronze plaque: “Proudly Provided by the People of Alaska.”