House Members Seek $136.3 Billion In Road Projects

Abiding by a new policy of openness in seeking projects for their home districts, House members have requested $136.3 billion in earmarks in a highway and transit-funding bill the House will take up this summer.

The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said that, as of late Wednesday, all 405 lawmakers asking for personal projects had posted those project requests on their office websites, as is now required under House rules aimed at making the earmarking process more open and less subject to abuse.

Members are required to provide letters of support from local officials and a certificate verifying that they have no financial interest in the project. Each project must also provide an opportunity for public comment.

The committee has provided the Department of Transportation (DOT) with a copy of the requests and has asked DOT to review them to ensure that the projects meet program eligibility criteria. It has requested that the DOT complete its review within 20 days.

The committee, which is expected to introduce its six-year surface transportation bill next month, said it had received 6,868 requests for what it calls High Priority Projects (HPP). It is now in the process of vetting the requests to determine which projects will be included in the surface transportation bill to be introduced next month.

“We are providing an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability in this process,” said Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN).

The earmarking process drew sharp criticism when Congress passed the last surface transportation bill in 2005. Watchdog groups questioned the need for money going to local museums or bike paths, and the extravagance of some projects, including the $200 million “bridge to nowhere” in rural Alaska.

Several groups, while applauding the move toward more openness, complained that lawmakers were not required to post requests on their websites before submitting them to the committee. That’s the procedure now used by the House Appropriations Committee, which is in charge of annual spending bills.

The Sunlight Foundation, committed to helping citizens, bloggers and journalists be their own best congressional watchdogs by improving access to existing information and digitizing new information, and by creating new tools and websites to enable all of us to collaborate in fostering greater transparency, earlier this week also said that the absence of a central location for posting earmark requests made them more difficult to locate. It said its staff had been able to find just 85 requests on member websites.

The committee is expected to approve a number far short of the $136.3 billion in requests. In 2005, Congress approved about 6,300 HPP requests from both House and Senate lawmakers totaling about $24 billion.

The next surface transportation bill, which provides federal money over six years for the construction and repair of roads, bridges and mass transit, is expected to be in the $400 billion range. The current bill, SAFETEA-Lu expires at the end of September.

The 2009 reauthorization of the Federal Surface Transportation Program is an historic opportunity to establish a national vision and mission that delivers 21st
Century sustainable transportation solutions that strengthen the U.S. economy, enhance the quality of life for all Americans and protect our natural environment.

For too long, an inefficient and deteriorating transportation network has been taken for granted—as have the federal programs and financing structures designed to support this system. As a result, traffic congestion has become pervasive, the competitiveness of American businesses in the global market has suffered, and the role of the federal government in transportation has been clouded. In short, the status quo is not only unacceptable, but also destructive.

As Congress prepares for the upcoming reauthorization debate, the members of the Transportation Construction Coalition (TCC), a partnership of 28 national associations and construction unions representing hundreds of thousands of individuals with a direct market interest in federal transportation programs, offers the following goals and recommendations to transform the U.S. surface transportation network from a liability into an asset.

The TCC’s recommended guiding principles are:

  • Strong Federal Leadership
  • Protect Existing Assets-Sustainability
  • Expand System Capacity
  • User Fee Financing to Increase Investment
  • Improve Project Delivery Process
  • Enhance Infrastructure Safety

Specific recommendations include:

  • Short-Term Financing
  • User Fee Rate Commission
  • Future Financing
  • New Freight Program
  • Budget Firewalls
  • Accountability
  • Timely Enactment
  • Environmental Review Process
  • Infrastructure Safety
  • User Fee Integrity
  • Research

We can continue to ignore the problems or even pretend that the Stimulus Package is going to solve them, but the simple truth is that our transportation infrastructure problems need to be fixed. There is no single solution. Focusing only on mass transit or roads isn’t the answer. We have grown to a country of over 300 million and are continuing to increase our population numbers.

It’s time to start believing the growth and needs projections that are coming from a wide variety of different sources. They can’t all be wrong. I recently heard someone say, “We can’t pave our way out of our transportation problems.” That’s a fact. But, we can plan our way out… Now is the time to look at all the plans, evaluate them and decide on a realistic course of action that will lay the foundation for future infrastructure growth and change.

Greg Sitek

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