When Congress returns this month from its summer recess, it will begin the arduous job of negotiating and writing the highway authorization bill. So contentious is this six-year-long legislation that it has fallen behind schedule several times and by so many years that lawmakers have had to pass annual stopgap measures to keep the country's infrastructure on life support.
The reason for the rancor surrounding the bill is that lawmakers try to pack it with as much pork (the polite term is earmarks) for their particular district that it takes years for everyone to get their piece of the action. Any lawmaker who has attempted to change the system has gotten slapped down. Most people recall the infamous $228 million “Bridge to Nowhere” written into the last bill by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), who has since been indicted by a federal grand jury on seven counts of falsely reporting gifts. When challenged on his bridge funding by Sen. Tom Coburn (D-OK), Stevens is on record as telling fellow senators: “If we start cutting funding for individual projects, your project may be next.”
The Highway Trust Fund, which helps to defray the cost of many pork projects, is broke, a victim of raiding by the government when it was flush and a drop in funding that comes from a tax on fuel. The trust fund is suffering, as motorists and truckers are driving less, which generates less tax money.
Both presidential candidates have promised to veto any highway bill containing excessive pork. This is not an easy promise to keep; President George W. Bush vowed to do the same, but finally relented in the face of enormous pressure from both parties and the public that wanted their bridges and roads fixed.
Even if a bill were to pass without wasteful projects, it won't be enough. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Future Highway and Public Transportation Finance Study suggests the U.S. needs to invest an additional $50 billion a year in the highway and public transportation systems to maintain their current performance and more than $100 billion annually to improve their performance. A $400 billion funding bill over six years just won't cut it. “People need to understand that this infrastructure thing is not optional,” said U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donohue.
“We must either find ways now to fund a transportation system that will ensure economic prosperity or be content to sit in traffic and watch our highways crumble because of overuse and a lack of funding,” Pete K. Rahn, director, Missouri Dept. of Transportation and president of the American Assn. of State Highway and Transportation Officials, recently told Congress.
Where infrastructure funding will come from is not yet clear. The administration is pushing for privatization and tolling of interstates, options that do not sit well with truck stakeholders. One short-term measure was suggested by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who proposed moving unspent money from pork projects to the Highway Trust Fund immediately. According to Dept. of Transportation estimates, about $11 billion in low priority and earmarked money remains unspent. “Congress larded up the transportation bill with more earmarks than there was money to pay for them. Instead of taking money from the general fund for these earmarks, Congress needs to go on a pork diet,” said Flake. The House rejected this plan.
In 2006, voters gave the Democrats a majority in the House; exit polls revealed that corruption in Congress (mainly wasteful spending) was second only to the Iraq War as the reason they ousted Republican lawmakers.
Voters have said loud and clear that they don't want any more bridges to nowhere.