Remember the last highway appropriations bill? That's when our distinguished members of Congress set a record for pet pork-barrel projects in their states. They allotted $24 billion for things like bridges in remote areas of Alaska, a remodel of an Erie Canal warehouse, bike trails in Minnesota and dust control on rural Arkansas roads.
There were 6,300 such projects in the 2005 bill – far more than the 1998 highway law that had just 1,850 projects costing $9 billion. There were even fewer in earlier highway measures.
Clearly, the system is out of control.
The 2005 measure was named the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users. Clever wording, designed to appease everyone, I'd suppose.
But words are cheap. When it comes to passing pork money, SAFETEA-LU's name is right out of the bargain basement.
Where are the accountability, efficiency and equity of a system that allows the most powerful legislators to grab the most money for their states, no matter how silly the projects are? Alaska – the third least-populated state – got the fourth-highest amount of money.
Where's the accountability, efficiency and equity of spending highway users' tax dollars to restore old warehouses and giving tax breaks to liquor interests and seaplane operators?
This act – all $286-plus billion of it – provided zero dollars to fix the 25 worst bottlenecks on the Interstate System. Highways, particularly in the northern states with severe winters, are crumbling. We have 160,000 bridges that need repair. Congestion has never been worse, and the truck and car population continues to outgrow road construction.
The act's "legacy for users" is that unless something is done in Washington to stop the madness, we will continue to pay and pay for things that don't get fixed.
The next round of transportation funding legislation is due in 2009 – two short years from now. There are forces at work, like the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, looking for ways to better the system – including overhauling its pork-barrel aspect.
There must be a major effort from highway user interests to bring some sense back into highway funding. Currently, federal money goes to the states, and the states decide which projects to fund.
I'm all for states' rights, but not abuse of them. This system invites abuse, and lawmakers are accepting the invitation.
The American Trucking Associations suggests a new methodology: Let the federal government identify what needs fixing, then dispense the funds to the states to have the work done.
Taking the decisions away from the states just might force legislators to look at the bigger picture.
Until the projects are prioritized by need – not greed – it's just going to get worse.