Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Flake Challenges House: Pork or Infrastructure

I wrote several days ago that Senator Coburn intends to make his fellow Senators choose between pork-barrel projects and infrastructure repair.

Thanks to a commenter for pointing out that Congressman Jeff Flake is doing the same in the House:

It is difficult to take seriously the argument that Congress is not spending enough money. According to the Congressional Budget Office, federal spending on infrastructure will approach $80 billion this year. The problem is not that we are spending too little, but rather that Congress puts strings on state transportation funds. Simply look at the 6,300 earmarks, worth more than $24 billion dollars, stuffed into the 2005 transportation bill. These particular earmarks are more troublesome than the usual raft of wasteful pork spending - and not just because of their sheer number.

The funds for these earmarks actually come out of the federal dollars that are available to states for transportation projects, limiting their flexibility to address priorities that they have identified. The goal of many Members of Congress in seeking earmarks is to be able to send out a press release or cut a ribbon, showing the folks back home how much they are doing for their district. Of course, these transportation earmarks end up short changing the state’s transportation funds.

While the “Bridge to Nowhere” was certainly the most famous of these earmarks, it at least resembled a transportation project. The most recent transportation authorization was replete with earmarks for bike paths, hiking trails, visitor centers, museums, beautification work, and other suspect projects that seem even more suspect given the events of the past months.

For example, Minnesota received more than 140 earmarks in the highway bill worth nearly half a billion dollars. According to a recent review, these included nearly $1.6 million for bike trails, more than $1.5 million for streetscaping, and more than $1 million for new visitor centers. With the state’s priorities undoubtedly shifting in light of recent events, Minnesota should have the flexibility to use its transportation funds as it needs to rather than on projects such as these.

Obviously, this problem is not limited to Minnesota. Congressional Quarterly recently highlighted that nearly all of the fifty most heavily traveled and structurally deficient bridges are concentrated in Los Angeles and San Francisco. My guess is that California has better uses for transportation dollars than the $5 million dollar earmark for bikeways and trails in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area or the $2.3 million dollar earmark for landscaping enhancements for “aesthetic purposes” along the Ronald Reagan Freeway in Simi Valley. These earmarks are even more egregious when you realize that California, like Arizona, is a “donor state,” meaning it receives less than a dollar worth of federal transportation funding for every dollar it pays in federal gas tax.

We can all agree that the Minnesota bridge collapse should serve as a wake-up call. Congress cannot continue to turn a blind eye to pork barrel politics that all too often reward the districts of powerful Members of Congress and tie the hands of state transportation officials. With this in mind, I plan to introduce legislation that will allow states the flexibility to use their transportation dollars as they see fit.

Both President Bush and Secretary Peters have both wisely dismissed calls for raising the gas tax and have called Congress out for squandering much-needed transportation funding on earmarks. The last thing we need is to raise the gas tax, which will simply give Washington politicians even more money to spend on earmarked projects.

We’ve been down that road before.

Hear, hear.

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