by Howard Stephenson
Congress recently passed the massive $286 billion highway bill, perhaps the biggest pork legislation in the nation’s history.
State Representative John Dougall recently expressed dismay with the federal measure in an opinion piece in the Utah Taxpayers Association newsletter. Even though Dougall sits on the state’s transportation committee and is well aware of the need for additional highway funding in Utah, he explained that the highway bill should never have passed with the thousands of pork projects in it. In fact, Dougall argues that the federal government ought not to take the money from the states in the form of federal highway taxes in the first place.
Dougall said it looked like Christmas in July with media reports such as “Congress approves $286 billion national highway bill, almost $1.8B for Utah transportation,” or “Bill provides $200M for commuter rail,” or “Bevy of Utah projects to gain funding in bill,” and “The most federal funding ever committed to Utah in a transportation bill.”
Representative Dougall noted the news media listed project after project that were to be built because of all the money from Washington. He said it sounded a lot like “free money” – free for the taking. However, he said the reality was that the money for the transportation bill came from someone, and that someone is you and me. Dougall said it would have been more accurate for a news headline to proclaim: “Utah citizens send more gas taxes back to Washington than ever before.”
To make matters worse, Utah, like many of the other states in the nation is a “donor” state, meaning for every $1 in gas taxes we send back to D.C. we receive less than $1 in return. Rep. Dougall said you could think of it like those casino games advertised on the billboard in Nevada guaranteeing “98% loose slots.” In other words, we’re pretty much guaranteed to lose money in the transportation bill.
But it doesn’t stop there, Rep. Dougall said, “Congress then divides the money in categories that it thinks should be funded and adds additional regulation that drives up the costs of projects, but does nothing to improve quality. The net result? Federal money is much less effective than state money – some claim 10-20% less effective.”
Add to the process the pork barrel spending where Congressmen pick those projects that will curry political favors and popularity with certain powerful constituencies, all at the expense of an effective transportation system. Dougall noted that the current reauthorization bill has over 6,000 earmarked projects all at the dictate of Congress, overriding the local cities, counties, departments of transportation, and state legislatures. Dougall said the process fosters a groveling at the congressional trough for the detriment of America and its transportation system.
In fact, the desire to spend was so great that the recently approved bill not only exceeded the
limit the President claimed would bust the budget, but early reports indicate that the spending levels in the newly passed transportation bill will bankrupt the Highway Trust Fund in the 2009-2010 timeframe – meaning Congress will be spending more than is being infused into the trust fund.
Rep. Dougall said there is a better way. He noted that in its last session, the Utah legislature took the opposite approach to transportation funding. The legislature recognized that the most important objective for transportation funding is to ensure that our limited transportation funds were directed at the most critical needs in the State. So, rather than earmarking a set of new capacity projects, the legislature created the Transportation Investment Fund and is requiring the Transportation Commission to utilize an open, scientific criteria-driven process for ranking project needs to make sure that our limited funds go to our most essential projects, engaging science more and politics less.
Highways Made of Pork
There are an estimated 6371 pork projects in the highway bill recently passed by Congress. Here’s a list of projects inserted into previous highway bills. See a disturbing trend? At this rate, they’ll eventually have to rename these as Pork Bills where highway projects are subjectively inserted, not the other way around. Every member of the U.S. House received pork for their respective districts except one – Jeff Flake of Arizona’s 6th District.