Frittered away

| September 01, 2006

Such projects may seem insignificant within the framework of a $286 billion transportation bill, but they do add up. In the most recent highway bill, the non-partisan budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense identified 6,373 earmarked projects – often called “pork” – worth more than $24 billion.

Originally, such discretionary spending was well intentioned. Mary Peters, a former federal highway administrator now a member of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, told the commission’s June 26 meeting that earmarking was designed to move money wherever it was most needed every year. Now, she said, it does the opposite.

Earmarks sometimes go to waste, Peters said. Once funds are earmarked, they must be spent on that purpose or not at all. Sometimes the state or locality refuses to match the federal money, so the federal money just sits there unused, she said. That happened to $91.5 million in federal funds authorized in 1991 for a Wisconsin commuter rail system, said another commission member, Frank Busalacchi, Wisconsin transportation secretary.

With record federal spending and rising budget deficits, momentum is building for limiting earmarks, if not cutting them altogether. Taxpayers for Common Sense wants Congress to set a maximum number of allowable earmarks at no greater than 50 percent of the previous year’s levels for the next five years. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has asked for full disclosure of all parties involved in any earmarks and for a requirement that all earmarks be subject to vote. Most pork projects now are simply included in unofficial reports that are not voted on. The foundation also supports giving the president line-item veto authority.

But the biggest bacon basher may be U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who chairs the Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management. He has vowed to challenge every earmark this year, “even if it means bringing the entire appropriations process to a virtual standstill,” according to his website.

That could be bad news for many on Capitol Hill, especially U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., whose 30 namesake public works projects earned him the title “King of Pork” from Citizens Against Public Waste. Not surprising from a man who famously said: “You might as well slap my wife as take away my highway money.”

Sandra Bushue, deputy federal transit administrator, began her June presentation to the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission by saying: “I have the best job in the world, because transit is hot!”

She cited a June 20 Wall Street Journal headline on the popularity of commuter buses, trains and trolleys: “Mass transit is gaining riders and cachet as gas prices climb.” Thirty million Americans use mass transit every day, says Art Guzzetti of the American Public Transportation Association, which represents mass-transit operations. In the 2004 elections, voters approved every mass-transit referendum put before them but one, Bushue said.

Unlike the 20th-century interstate planners, today’s highway planners must incorporate mass transit into their projects, Guzzetti says. “That’s the way to alleviate congestion,” he says.

Critics argue that mass transit systems suck needed funds away from highways. Only 23 percent of transit revenue comes from passenger fares, which tend to be artificially low to encourage riders, says Richard Steinmann of the Federal Transit Administration. Fuel taxes make up another 15 percent. In many cities, toll road revenues help subsidize mass transit.

Don’t like the idea of higher fuel taxes? Consider other trends that might relieve urban congestion, as noted by transportation consultant Alan Pisarski before the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission:

CARPOOLING. Because so many are recent immigrants with few assets, about a third of Hispanics carpool, Pisarski said. This may not last, he added, because like most Americans, immigrants aspire to own a car.

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