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typewriterNews and Views
August 17, 2005

The Transportation Legislation Abomination

We waited six years for a new transportation funding bill from the U.S. Congress, and it was finally approved by the House and Senate on July 28 and 29 and signed by President Bush on August 10. The bill calls for $286 billion in funding for everything from new roads and bridges to a plethora of pork.

In fact, I was prompted to write about this by an August 7, 2005 NEW YORK TIMES article titled "Fresh Port, Coming to a District Near You" that described some of the more than 6,000 special projects slipped into the bill by our legislators. The TIMES says that about 8% of the bill was accounted for by these projects - I guess that's the good news. The bad news is that 8% of $286 billion still comes out to almost $23 billion.

You've probably seen the lists of these pet projects - they include such things as $2.3 million for landscaping improvements to the Ronald Reagan Freeway in California, funds to renovate and expand the National Packard Museum in Ohio, and a total of $454 million for two new bridges in remote and barely populated areas of Alaska. The chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is Alaska Rep. Don Young. The TIMES article says that Young is "not shy about getting all he can for his vast district. Of the highway bill, he said, "I stuffed it like a turkey'."

The great thing about this legislation is that it gives me lots of opportunities to get frustrated and to rant. Yes, I realize it's politics-as-usual for a committee chair to want to bring home the bacon (and money) for constituents as Don Young did, and I realize I'm probably kidding myself by even dreaming about what a small fraction of the $286 billion could do to deal with substandard housing and nutrition in the U.S. But what really gets to me is that the bill is, once again, skewed toward increasing transportation supply (e.g., more roads, more parking lots, more bridges) instead of a balanced effort that would also seek to moderate demand.

Why is that? Because this bill is about transportation in name only. It's really about helping businesses and providing jobs. How do I know? Read these excerpts from President Bush's remarks when he signed the bill at the Caterpillar Inc. factory in Illinois:

"And I'm here to sign the highway bill because I believe by signing this bill, when it's fully implemented, there's going to be more demand for the machines you make here. (Applause.) And because there's more demand for the machines you make here, there's going to be more jobs created around places like this facility. (Applause.) So thanks for letting us come."

"[T]his bill is going to help modernize the highway system and improve quality of life for a lot of people. And these projects will require workers. Highways just don't happen; people have got to show up and do the work to refit a highway or build a bridge. And they need new equipment to do so. So the bill I'm signing is going to help give hundreds of thousands of Americans good paying jobs."

Yes, the bill will also allow much-needed repairs to old infrastructure and building of equally-needed new roads and bridges; these and other aspects of the legislation should reduce accidents and congestion to a degree. However, we still have not learned in this country that we have to look at the supply AND the demand side of transportation if we're ever going to make any real progress.

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