Flim Flam Won’t Fix Roads

Scott Lilly makes sense of earmarks in highway legislation, the president’s budget claims, and plans to make our infrastructure stronger.

The collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis threatens to reshape public opinion on administration budget policy just as the administration’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina transformed public perception of the administration’s competence in performing basic government services. The long-planned standoff with Congress over the size of annual spending bills now poses as many or more risks for the White House as it offers opportunities.

The simple message presented by pictures of the fallen bridge is that this country is not only failing to add the infrastructure it needs, but it is failing to even maintain the infrastructure that has already been built. Veto threats sent in recent weeks against bills because they contain too much investment in infrastructure seem to pit the White House against the preponderance of public opinion. As a result, the White House has developed a new argument. Our problem, according to the White House, is not how much we spend on highways but how we spend it. During last week’s White House press conference the president stated:

You know, it’s an interesting question about how Congress spends and prioritizes highway money. My suggestion would be that they revisit the process by which they spend gasoline money in the first place … if bridges are a priority, let’s make sure we set that priority first and foremost before we raise taxes.

So the White House is posing two questions. First, would reform or elimination of earmarking make a real dent in infrastructure deficiencies? Second, what reforms should be instituted?

Highway spending, unlike virtually any other portion of the federal discretionary budget is by and large not controlled in the annual appropriation bills. Most decisions on where money from the Federal Highway Trust Fund will be spent are made in authorization bills regulating the flow of spending from the fund over a period of years—typically five or six years. The 2005 highway bill known as The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU, set the annual disbursements from the federal highway trust fund through fiscal year 2009.

That bill was without any question a pork extravaganza of unparalleled proportions. This one piece of legislation contained $23 billion in earmarks—more than all previous highway bills combined. On a yearly basis, that would total about $4.5 billion a year, a sizeable sum of money and about 8 percent of the money appropriated under the highway bill. But how does that compare to current highway infrastructure needs?

Three different organizations make estimates relating to the amount spending needed to maintain our highway system. They include the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). All agree that the system has deteriorated and is in need of significant upgrading. But their estimates vary on the amount needed to achieve specific infrastructure goals. One goal is simply to stop the highways system from deteriorating further. The FHA estimates that it would require about $10 billion a year above current spending levels to keep highway conditions at current levels. AASHTO estimates that that objective would require about $30 billion a year.

There is general agreement, however, that highway conditions have already fallen below acceptable levels and that more spending would be required to bring about needed improvements. Estimates as to the cost of additional improvements are in the range of an additional $30 billion a year.

Elimination of the earmarks would cover less than a quarter of the mid range estimate of the amount needed to simply maintain the road system at current levels and would provide less than 10 percent of the funds needed to meet the mid-range estimate for providing substantial improvements.

Even these figures significantly overstate the role that the cancellation of earmarks might play in meeting these needs. While the “Bridge to Nowhere” and a variety of other widely reported boondoggles get most of the media attention many of the earmarks in fact went to repairing and replacing failing roadways. Most members of Congress find that fixing problems that are widely viewed by local motorists as the most pressing not only makes for good transportation policy but also makes good politics as well.

Even though elimination of wasteful earmarks will pay only a portion of the bill, it is a step worth taking. So how do we take it? That is the real catch-22 in the White House logic. The president signed the last highway bill in August 2005. It will not expire until 2009. The vast majority of the funds earmarked in this legislation have already been disbursed to state highway departments and in many instances those funds have been obligated. Canceling those contracts would in all probability cost the government more money than could be saved.

So what is the president really trying to say, that the next president should be much tougher than he was about signing a bad highway bill? Bush not only signed the bill, he was, according to many accounts, intimately involved in its creation. In March 2004, Speaker Hastert told a press conference that he had given up on dealing with the Department of Transportation and lower-level officials at the White House. Hastert announced, "I dealt with the president. I don’t deal with his people anymore."

As the number of projects continued to grow, Bush not only agreed to sign the highway bill, but he traveled to the congressional district of Speaker Hastert to sign it. He used the occasion to praise what some considered the most outrageous single earmark of the 6300 earmarks contained in the legislation, a $207 million four-lane highway known as the “Prairie Parkway” that had not been requested by the state of Illinois and which ran past real estate recently acquired by the Speaker himself. Bush said at the signing ceremony:

And that’s why I’m proud to be here to sign this transportation bill, because our economy depends on us having the most efficient, reliable transportation system in the world. If we want people working in America, we’ve got to make sure our highways and roads are modern … Here in Illinois, as the Speaker mentioned, one of the key projects … is what they call the "Prairie Parkway." The Prairie Parkway is crucial for economic progress…

In the years following World War II the United States showed extraordinary vision in building the physical infrastructure that helped power a period of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. During that period we had leaders in both parties who recognized that the public sector played a critical role in promoting growth and opportunity for the private sector and who also recognized that public funds must be invested with discipline and care.

Legislation that President Eisenhower signed in 1956 called for 44,000 miles of four lane divided highways with ten foot shoulders, 16,000 interchanges and 50,000 overpasses. That network created a backbone over which many of the goods and services generated by the world’s most prosperous and productive economy moved.

We now have a generation of leaders who argue about the role of the public sector even if it involves nothing more than maintaining the infrastructure built by previous generations. The reason that government should not act, they argue, is that it is wasteful and inefficient. Many of those same leaders appear to be using positions in government to guarantee that government is as bad as they like to characterize it.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow