Transportation Funding Will Be A Big Challenge For Former Earmarkers

David Williams

May 23, 2011

After seven extensions to the last transportation authorization bill, the 2005 Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (TEA-LU), Congress is poised to pass a transportation authorization bill in 2011.   The recent talk about spending cuts and shunning earmarks will make this authorization bill even more interesting than previous ones.  A transportation authorization bill is important to enable the federal government to fund the transportation needs of the country.  Unfortunately, over the last 20 years, transportation authorization bills have been politicized and earmarked without regard to transportation needs.

When the last transportation authorization bill was passed in 2005 the fiscal and political landscapes were quite different.  In 2005, there was no Tea Party and Congress was earmarking projects at a breakneck speed.  In 2011, we have a vocal and influential Tea Party movement and an earmark moratorium embraced by both parties and chambers (even though a few were slipped in the fiscal year 2011 Defense and NASA spending bills).

Transportation bills have become increasingly used to fund pet projects and both parties have been guilty of politicizing and earmarking transportation authorization bills.  For example, the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Equity Act contained 538 earmarked projects at a cost of $6.32 billion.  The 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century contained 1,850 projects, adding up to $9 billion.   The last transportation bill, TEA-LU, which was passed in 2005, contained 6,500 pork-barrel projects that totaled more than $24 billion.  Since 1991, that is a 280 percent increase in the cost while the number of projects skyrocketed 1,108 percent.

The question is what the next transportation bill has in store for taxpayers, and, as the Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) is leading the discussion.  A May 23, 2011 Politico editorial by Rep. Mica “How to fix American transportation,” is interesting reading because it is either a case of forgetfulness or a complete change of philosophical ideology.   Rep. Mica states, “The American people want government to ensure their hard-earned tax dollars are used more effectively and wisely. They want wasteful programs eliminated. And they want real infrastructure instead of endless studies and bureaucracy.”  The tone of the editorial is good news for the taxpayers as Rep. Mica states that “Congress must act now to craft legislation that can help create long-term jobs, reduce the massive federal bureaucracy, streamline project delivery and provide flexibility to states so they can address their infrastructure needs.”

Taxpayers should be concerned because Rep. Mica was one of the biggest apologists for earmarks before the moratorium in 2010.  In July of 2008 Rep. Mica stated that “There’s no way in hell I would support banning earmarks … That’s our job, getting elected and making decisions. Yes, there are bad earmarks, like there are bad members of Congress. And what you do is get rid of them.” 

Rep. Mica also states in the Politico editorial that “Many surface transportation programs are outdated, underperforming and underutilized. We clearly need a new direction to address our growing transportation challenges.”  Taxpayers hope that this “new direction” will mean no earmarks.  It will take real leadership from Rep. Mica to learn from his past mistakes and keep the bill free of earmarks and hopefully usher in an era of more responsible transportation funding.

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