Federal Highway Spending Jumps the Shark

Report Budget and Spending

Federal Highway Spending Jumps the Shark

August 4, 2004 6 min read

Authors: Alison Acosta Fraser and Jonathan Swanson

If you have been following debate over the highway bill, you may have heard it criticized for its wildly extravagant earmarks. The Washington Post described the pork-barrel earmarks as "rampant."[1] CNN reported that the President is threatening to veto this "budget buster"[2] bill. Even still, things are much worse than you think.


Exploding Earmarks

The criticisms above are from 1998 when the "budget buster" highway bill-the "Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century," or TEA-21-cost $203 billion, there were a "rampant" 1,850 earmarks, and the veto threat was from President Clinton. The 1998 bill was a milestone: In the 1991 version there were only 538 earmarks, in 1987 a mere 152, and in 1981 the number of earmarks could be counted on two hands. Undaunted by the widespread criticism of six years ago, Congress has shown even less restraint this year. The number of earmarks in this year's $275 billion highway bill is likely to exceed 4,000, perhaps enough for all the fingers of all the hands in the House. Many of these earmarks have nothing to do with transportation.


Congressional Denial

Congress has responded to criticisms of this year's highway bill with a puzzling form of denial. After the House's highway bill was passed on April 2, Rep. Thomas Petri (R-WI), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Highways, Transit, and Pipelines, declared that the "Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users" (TEA-LU) "maintains the trust with the motoring public that was established in TEA-21 by continuing to ensure that the gas taxes paid by Americans will actually be spent on transportation improvements."[3] But many earmarks are not related to transportation. For example, how will the $1 million earmarked for endangered species habitat protection in Florida reduce congestion? Similarly, how will the $250,000 earmarked to construct outdoor facilities in Virginia improve transportation? What about the $4 million earmarked for snowmobile safety accommodations in Maine?


Rep. Petri, also second ranking member of the Committee on Transportation, is not alone in his denial of the bill's fiscal irresponsibility. Committee Chairman Don Young (R-AK) echoes the sentiment. "Every nickel that is earmarked in this bill goes to a form of transportation," said Rep. Young during House debate on the bill. "No dollars go outside that for any other purpose, regardless of what you might read."[4] This is simply not true. Among other items, the House has earmarked $2.5 million for a Blue Ridge Music Center in Virginia and an unconscionable $7 million for the "Renaissance Square" performing arts center in New York. These are not just pork-barrel earmarks; they are non-transportation pork-barrel earmarks.


Safety Scandal

While this year's earmarks may be more laughable than ever before, the country's transportation situation is anything but humorous. Congestion is getting worse. Commute times are increasing. And this should be no surprise: Despite the federal government's $700 billion (inflation-adjusted) of transportation spending since 1970, road capacity has only increased by 7 percent. There are graver problems than just congestion. As Rep. Don Young has noted, "Thirty-two percent of our major roads are in poor condition…. More than 42,000 people die each year on our roads and highways. Nearly one-third of all these fatal crashes are caused by substandard road conditions and roadside hazards."[5] If thousands of citizens are dying each year because of poor road conditions, why is Congress including earmarks for a $250,000 transportation museum in a Cleveland high school or a $1.5 million Henry Ford Museum in Michigan?


Special Interests Clean Up

Some legislators insist that all earmarks have been requested by their states' Department of Transportations, and not by special interests. But did the Virginia Department of Transportation, coming to grips with $1 billion in budget cuts, really request $250,000 for outdoor facilities along the Music Heritage Trail, $1.5 million for the Rocky Knob Appalachian Heritage Center, and $2.5 million for the Blue Ridge Music Center? It is more likely that these earmarks from Virginia, like many from around the country, are the result of special-interest lobbying. Williams and Jensen, a D.C. lobbying firm, works on highway funding and boasts that one member of its transportation team alone "has been successful in securing over $5 billion in federal appropriations on behalf of his clients."[6] How else other than special-interest lobbying could one explain a $15 million earmark for a road to a privately owned gold mine that might not have gold or a $200 million bridge to an island with a population under 50?


Turn It Back

The federal highway program was created in 1956 to build the interstate highway system, and that goal was realized in the early 1980s. Since then, the federal highway program has had no concrete purpose, and yet successive highway bills have grown more and more costly. This year's bill is 35 percent more expensive than any other, and only two-thirds of the money will fund general-purpose highway projects.[7] The federal highway program has been transformed from a once-purposeful institution into an aimless program guided by increasingly absurd earmarks that serve special interests at the expense of taxpaying motorists.


Research shows that, with the increasing urbanization of the population, local and regional governments can handle transportation issues better than the federal government.[8] Congress and the President should work towards the termination of the federal highway program and return the responsibility and financial resources for transportation to the states. And at the least, President Bush should set an upper limit on exploding pork-barrel spending in the highway program by standing by his promise to veto any transportation bill much exceeding $256 billion.


Alison Acosta Fraser is Director of the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies, and Jonathan Swanson is an intern in Domestic Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.


[1] Eric Pianin and Charles R. Babcock, "Highway Pork on the Menu in Both Houses," The Washington Post, April 19, 1998, p. A6.

[2] "Clinton Ponders a Highway Veto," CNN, April 23, 1998.

[3] Office of Rep. Don Young, "$275 BILLION HIGHWAY & TRANSIT FUNDING BILL APPROVED BY U.S. HOUSE," Press Release, April 2, 2004.

[4]Brian Friel, "Pork defenders praise earmarks," Govexec.com Daily Briefing, May 10, 2004.

[5] Rep. Don Young, speech on House floor introducing H.R. 3550, November 20, 2003.

[6] Williams and Jensen, " Practice Areas."

[7]Ronald Utt, Ph.D., "Reauthorization of TEA-21: A Primer on Reforming the Federal Highway and Transit Programs," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1643, April 7, 2003.

[8] ibid.


Alison Acosta Fraser

Former Senior Fellow and Director of Government Finance Programs

Jonathan Swanson

F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy