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According to the authors, "As Congress debates “refilling” (by deficit spending) the soon-to-be-empty Highway Trust Fund, it should first look at ways to reprioritize areas of current spending that may not reflect the realities of a decaying national transportation infrastructure."

x Read more opinions and news on funding for transportation, trails, greenways, and bike/pedesreian facilities:

x Download the complete 22-page text with photos and citations (pdf 1.5 mb) of "Out of Gas: Congress Raids the Highway Trust Fund for Pet Projects While Bridges and Roads Crumble" by Senators Tom Coburn, M.D. & John McCain

 

Out of Gas: Congress Raids the Highway Trust Fund for Pet Projects While Bridges and Roads Crumble

By Senators Tom Coburn, M.D. & John McCain, July 2009

Introduction

One of the many recent government bailouts consisted of $8 billion for the bankrupt Highway Trust Fund (HTF) — a fund set up to support, through federal gasoline and other taxes, all federal transportation programs and projects. However, the $8 billion did not solve the problem. The Highway Trust Fund will go bankrupt (again) by the end of August 2009 unless Congress bails it out (again).

This week the U.S. House of Representatives voted to spend $7 billion of taxpayers’ money, just to keep the Fund temporarily afloat, and the U.S. Senate is poised to do the same. Mere months ago, Congress provided over $27 billion for highway and infrastructure projects as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Yet billion-dollar government bailouts are not the solution to protect our nation’s infrastructure. Congress must begin by reprioritizing funds.

Flowers, bike paths, and even road-kill reduction programs, are just some of the many examples of extraneous expenditures (some of which are legally required) funded by Congress through federal transportation bills. Many of these projects are funded as earmarks, while others are born from legislators turning their private passions into public programs. Congress instead should allow states greater flexibility to allocate their highway dollars to their most pressing transportation needs. If Congress fails to reprioritize transportation spending, then crumbling bridges, congested highways, and poor road conditions will continue to deteriorate much to the detriment of all Americans.

Congress must also curb its addiction to earmarking and setting aside transportation funding for legislators’ pet projects and programs. If history is any guide, though, the next highway bill will not be earmark free. Congress has increased significantly the earmarking of federal highway funding:

• The 1982 highway bill included 10 demonstration projects totaling $386 million;
• The 1987 highway bill included 152 demonstration projects totaling $1.4 billion;
• The 1991 highway bill included 538 location-specific projects totaling $6.1 billion;
• The 1998 highway bill included 1,850 earmarked projects totaling $9.3 billion; and
• The 2005 highway bill included over 5,634 earmarked projects totaling $21.6 billion.

GAO Releases New Report

A new U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, compiled at the request of Senators Tom Coburn and John McCain, details how the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has obligated $78 billion over the last five years for “purposes other than construction and maintenance of highways and bridges.” This $78 billion figure does not fully capture how much has been promised, or authorized, by Congress over the last five years for these “other purposes,” it just reflects how much has been released for spending, or obligated, so far.

The $78 billion, five-year total for obligated expenditures for non-highway, non-bridge construction or maintenance projects includes:

• Over $2 billion on 5,547 projects for bike paths and pedestrian walkways and facilities;
• $850 million for 2,772 “scenic beautification” and landscaping projects;
• $488 million for behavioral research;
• $313 million for safety belt performance grants;
• $224 million for 366 projects to rehabilitate and operate historic transportation buildings, structures, and facilities;
• $215 million for 859 projects under scenic or historic highway programs;
• $121 million on 63 projects for ferryboats and ferry terminal facilities;
• $110 million for occupant protection incentive grants;
• $84 million for 398 projects for safety and education of pedestrians and bicyclists;
• $84 million for 213 road-kill prevention, wildlife habitat connectivity, and highway runoff pollution mitigation projects;
• $28 million to establish 55 transportation museums;
• $19 million for 25 projects to control and remove outdoor advertising;
• $18 million for motorcyclist safety grants; and
• $13 million on 50 projects for youth conservation service.

While some of these expenditures may merit funding, periodic congressional review is essential to determine if all merit continued funding, if measurable outcomes are demonstrating their success, and if their goals could be accomplished with fewer dollars.

Upon review, Congress may find some of these expenditures are unnecessary luxuries and others — such as establishing new transportation museums — simply cannot be justified while the Highway Trust Fund has insufficient funds for repairing dangerous roads and bridges.

Re-Examine Before Refilling

As Congress debates “refilling” (by deficit spending) the soon-to-be-empty Highway Trust Fund, it should first look at ways to reprioritize areas of current spending that may not reflect the realities of a decaying national transportation infrastructure. Many politicians are quick to defend spending millions in federal funds on their districts’ bike paths, transportation museums, road-side flowers, and even the “bridge to nowhere.” Yet, Congress needs to evaluate whether such projects merit federal funding in light of our current trillion-dollar deficit, the economic downturn, and the realities of a collapsing transportation infrastructure that literally is costing American lives.

The Status Quo Will Not Work

Critics of the GAO report and this report will claim these examples are but a small portion of overall transportation spending and do not begin to address the long-term Trust Fund shortfall. Yet, we cannot continue to spend $78 billion in areas other than crucial road and bridge construction and maintenance and beg Congress to steal from our nation’s children and grandchildren when the Highway Trust Fund runs dry. We cannot spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars to renovate “historic facilities” such as gas stations and then complain that history will look poorly on a nation that let its vital interstate transportation system fall into disrepair. We should not force states to spend approximately 10 percent of all their surface transportation program funds on “enhancement” projects like landscaping, bicycle safety, and transportation museums, when fixing a bridge or repairing a road would be a more practical and necessary use of these limited funds.

We have asked individuals and families across the country to examine their own budgets and start spending more responsibly. We should expect nothing less of our nation’s leaders in Congress.

Conclusion

Our country is literally running on empty. Future generations of Americans will inherit a multitrillion dollar debt because Washington politicians have long relied on reckless borrowing to finance their wish lists of pet projects and programs. There seems to be no crisis facing our nation that Washington politicians believe borrowing or bailouts cannot solve. Now the politicians want to be trusted with yet another bailout, this time of The Highway Trust Fund. Politicians will not make tough choices, so taxpayers must begin demanding them.

The choices faced today with the Highway Trust Fund are:

GAO reports our nation obligated $78 billion over five years to projects other than crucial bridge and highway maintenance and repair. Now, Congress is being asked to borrow $7 billion from general tax revenues to only temporarily refill the Highway Trust Fund.

No one is saying our nation should be without flowers and ferries or bike paths and boat museums. But today’s choices must be about priorities. Should those priorities include spending millions on programs that tell bikers to smile and making states use funds for the safety of their turtles instead of the safety of their citizens?

At a minimum, states should be given the flexibility to opt out of the federal Transportation Enhancement funding requirement. The shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund could also be addressed without further deficit spending by shifting unused funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Transferring unspent stimulus funds to ensure the Highway Trust Fund remains solvent would be consistent with a stated purpose of the Act to improve our transportation infrastructure to support job growth.

Congress should walk the fiscally responsible path. Each chamber should implement a moratorium on all transportation-related earmarks for the remainder of the 111th Congress. Washington politicians should be required to sit down with the new GAO report, the transportation bailout request, and our red pens. From there, crossing out extraneous transportation spending should be our first priority. Lives depend on it.

x Download the complete 22-page text with photos and citations (pdf 1.5 mb) of "Out of Gas: Congress Raids the Highway Trust Fund for Pet Projects While Bridges and Roads Crumble" by Senators Tom Coburn, M.D. & John McCain

 


 

x Read more about current funding for trails, parks, outdoor recreation, and federal land management on the American Trails website:

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