Lots of Money, Little Return: The Federal Highway Bill
March 11, 2005
From my days as a state legislator and through my years in Congress I've always been opposed to political pork. I'm often asked what I mean by that-"what is pork?" In short, when a member of Congress goes around the established process for obtaining federal funding for a local project, that's pork. It's usually money that goes to non-competitive projects that only serve the interests of specific areas or groups.
Recently I was one of nine Congressmen that voted against the highway bill before Congress. Let me tell you why: $3 million for a permanent irrigation system and enhanced landscaping at a bus transitway in San Fernando Valley; over $1 million for a transportation museum in Connecticut; $1.3 million for a recreational visitor's center in Minnesota; $150 million for a bridge in Alaska. Littered among the thousands of projects listed in the bill are millions of dollars for bike paths, museums, visitors' centers, and all sorts of other things that have little to do with maintaining our nation's transportation infrastructure.
Is it any wonder that the federal budget is in the shape it's in when Congress can't stick to spending highway money on highways?
After all, that's the purpose of the highway bill: to improve highway transportation and mobility, and to provide congestion relief. How exactly do landscaping and "scenic enhancements" meet those goals? I couldn't tell you, but that's exactly the sort of thing you'll find plenty of in the highway bill.
It's ironic that the Budget Committee was considering a bill to CUT the $368 billion deficit on the same day the House took up the pork-laden highway bill. An estimated 40% of all federal highway spending is absorbed by pork, or "member priority projects" in Washingtonese. Remember that when we talk about the highway bill. It isn't something that benefits Ohio; it's just another multi-billion dollar federal boondoggle.
The interstate highway system was completed 20 years ago, and since then we've had four highway bills costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. In the same time period, the number of licensed drivers has increased 71%, registered vehicles are up 99%, and the number of miles driven by motorists has risen by 148%. So how much has our nation's road capacity increased? 6%. Every few years we go through the same inefficient, top-down approach that we're going through now, and how do taxpayers and drivers benefit? We really don't.
A successful transportation program would include consultation and planning with local, county, state, and federal officials. This input is necessary to ensure that a project is well-planed and can be supported by the community in the future. In contrast, this highway bill substitutes Congressional pet projects for state and local priorities.
And Ohio is one of the states that really gets taken to the cleaners. In a perfect world, the states would keep the taxes they collect and the federal government would only get involved in those projects that are inherently federal. In our world, Ohio continues to be a "donor state" to the federal highway trust fund (meaning that we pay more than we receive), subsidizing "highway beautification" and "streetscape improvements" in other "donee" states.
I've been working to change that and to support Ohio's critical road and highway projects in other ways. In the corporate tax bill passed last fall, I worked with other members from southwest Ohio to champion a legislative proposal that will reward Ohio with more federal dollars for its use of clean-burning ethanol in its fuel, and will guarantee our state an equitable return on the gas tax dollars we invest in the federal government's highway fund. The change we made is in the way ethanol is treated in the highway funding formula, and it is the single most important reform for Ohio transportation projects. Because of this fix, Ohio will see an estimated $160 million in additional highway money each year.
Furthermore, my staff and I will always work with local groups and all levels of government to find ways of funding high priority projects. Whether it's help with federal grants or loans, or simply help navigating the federal bureaucracy, I will continue to support funding Ohio's priority road projects fully and completely. And I will work with the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) and others to ensure southwest Ohio gets its share from Columbus. You can also be sure that I will continue my fight against political pork in the federal budget, in highway bills and anywhere else it's found.