Highways to hell

"Let them drink tea!" is the shout that reverberates from Capitol HillOtto von Bismarck was right. "Laws," he said, "are like sausages. It's better not to see them being made."His metaphor, uttered more than a century ago, is proving a particularly apt description of the highway bill now winding its way through the congressional trough. Not only does it have a little too much pork, it sets irresponsible

"Let them drink tea!" is the shout that reverberates from Capitol Hill

Otto von Bismarck was right. "Laws," he said, "are like sausages. It's better not to see them being made."

His metaphor, uttered more than a century ago, is proving a particularly apt description of the highway bill now winding its way through the congressional trough. Not only does it have a little too much pork, it sets irresponsible new spending levels. I know it may be sacrilegious to say, but the highway bill is plain bad public policy.

"What?" you ask. All the reports you've heard contain nothing but good news for trucking. Highway spending is up a hefty 40% at a time when the nation's infrastructure is in need of a major overhaul. Excise taxes on tires look like history. Safety provisions appear helpful.

All true. But at what price?

Whether you're talking about the $217-billion House package passed last month, or the only slightly more thrifty Senate bill, offering $214 billion in spending, both bust the bank. Each version runs some $30 billion higher than the caps both houses agreed to in last year's budget compromise.

The budget surplus had hardly gone into the black before the pork started flying. Even the budget surplus -- welcome though it is -- likely will prove fleeting as huge bills on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and our national debt come due.

The health of the trucking industry is tied directly to the strength of the economy and only indirectly to the state of the physical plant. Instead of caving in to political expediency, legislators should worry about how to ensure that our economic future is bright and prosperous enough to absorb these future challenges. Then and only then should we begin to invest in a modern and efficient transportation infrastructure.

Even still, those decisions must be made thoughtfully. We should not just throw money at our problems. Take mass transit, for instance. Public transit today provides only 3.19% of the daily trips to work, down by one-fifth since the beginning of the decade. Yet we still throw 20 cents out of every dollar of federal funding on transit spending.

The bill currently pending before Congress contains more than 1,400 special interest spending items, disguised as demonstration projects. Such pork barrel spending is a thinly veiled attempt to buy the votes of lawmakers in every district. It gives everyone a chance to bring home a little bacon, which never hurts in an election year.

But as much as $9.4 billion -- or 5% of the highway spending -- has been set aside for these projects, which run the gamut from bike paths, to walkways, to transportation museums, to ethanol subsidies. Even a botanical garden.

Ronald Utt, visiting fellow in economic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, argues that Washington should not control such demonstration projects. Instead, he says, each state should be allowed "to use its share of the Highway Trust Fund for projects that meet locally determined needs and priorities."

"In addition to misdirecting existing federal funds, earmarked demonstration projects require states to put up their own funds to match the federal grant, further limiting the ability of each state to use its own funds to meet local priorities," Utt says.

The time has come to set our priorities straight.

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