Federal Highway Bill: A Dead-End for Ohio Motorists
Earlier this year - in this column - I wrote about the start of what I called "an unseemly process at a high price." I was referring to the process employed by Congress to write a nationwide highway bill meant to repair and strengthen our country's transportation infrastructure. During my time in Congress, I haven't seen a process more outrageous and uninspiring as the one used to craft the federal highway bill. Why? I think the taxpayer watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste characterized it best when it described the highway bill currently before Congress as, "full of pork, including 2,800 projects costing $11 billion."
$1,500,000 for the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. $1,000,000 for a parking lot in San Diego. And $50,000 to fund a "FEASABILITY STUDY" for platform mobile phone service in New York City subway stations. These are just a few examples of the projects cited by the group. Not exactly what you'd call "high priority projects," right? Yet, that's exactly what they're called in the highway bill.
My opposition to this process is actually two-fold. First, I reject the notion of including these types of projects (called "earmarking" on Capitol Hill) in a federal highway bill because most of them are not considered priority projects by individual state departments of transportation. Often, Members of Congress secure these earmarks for a specific project, but the amount of money secured falls well short of the project's total cost. That leaves state officials scrambling to find money to fill the funding gap - taking away precious financial resources that could fund projects actually considered "high priorities" by state and local transportation experts.
I also oppose the process because it unfairly shortchanges the Buckeye State. Did you know that under the current highway funding formula, Ohio receives approximately 90 cents in return for every dollar our state contributes to the federal Highway Trust Fund? That means what our state actually receives from the federal government to fund important transportation projects falls well short of what our state pays into the funding system. Even more shocking is the current highway bill before Congress actually DECREASES that amount by nearly a dime per each dollar contributed. So, instead of making progress for Ohio motorists, this highway bill actually is more of a U-turn or even a dead-end.
Earlier in the year, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) encouraged Members to resist the urge to earmark and to fight for a higher rate of return on our state's investment in the Highway Trust Fund. I complied with both of their requests. As I looked at the House of Representatives' final draft of the highway bill, neither of ODOT's concerns were adequately addressed, however. Earmarks are front-and-center in the highway bill, and the bill slashes the rate of return on Ohio's highway trust fund investment.
During the House debate on the legislation, I voted to make it more palatable and equitable for Ohio. I supported a handful of amendments to address the excessive earmark concerns and to take a step toward restoring a higher rate of return for Ohio. Unfortunately, none of the amendments passed - apparently falling victim to the highway bill's out-of-control process. To make matters even worse, as opposition to the highway bill grew just hours before the House debate on the legislation began (because of a threatened veto by President Bush due to the bill's overall cost), a new amendment was added - and it passed. What would it do? According to the nonpartisan Capitol Hill publication Congressional Quarterly, the amendment contained, "a grab-bag of provisions that would add nearly $1 billion to the cost of the bill." In other words, additional earmarks helped grease the wheel for House passage.
As you might expect, despite my opposition to the process and my disappointment in the legislative product itself, the House approved the highway bill overwhelmingly, with only 65 Members voting against it. I was one of them, and I'll be the first to admit I was vastly outgunned. But make no mistake, based on the reasons I've just given, I don't regret my vote for one second. It's a bill worthy of the process used to write it. And it's a setback for the State of Ohio.