December 1, 2004

December 1, 2004 | Commentary on Smart Growth

Tenderizing highway pork

As Congress stumbles toward a new highway bill, connoisseurs of Washington's great spoils system can't help wonder whether even pundit H.L. Mencken -- who once observed that "government is a broker in pillage, and every election is sort of an advance auction sale of stolen goods" -- would be shocked by the deliberations.

Writing his philippic two decades before the federal highway program was created, Mencken was spared its modern excesses, best revealed by an "earmark" for a $200 million bridge linking Ketchikan, Alaska, with Gravina Island (population 50). With the bridge costing $4 million per Gravina resident, Alaska's congressional delegation certainly could show the Sage of Baltimore a thing or two about bringing home the bacon.

Notwithstanding its bad reputation, the highway program managed to remain pork-free for much of its early history. Created in 1956 to build the interstate system, it accomplished that goal by the early 1980s. And reflecting the seriousness Congress brought to its responsibilities back then, the 1982 highway bill included only 10 earmarks, compared to more than 3,000 adorning the current version.

But once the interstate system was completed, the program -- funded exclusively by user fees/taxes levied on motorists and truckers -- became more of an all-purpose spending program. Today, many members of Congress divert as much as they can of the $40 billion annual highway spending. And the average motorist, who pays the tax, receives less than 65 percent in return.

That other 35 percent is siphoned off by transit programs, Appalachian development, federal lands, covered bridges, hiking paths, flower plantings and other leakages. The bills now before Congress add new diversions for bicycle paths, battlefield preservation, adolescent obesity and water runoff. Thanks in part to these costly diversions, road capacity has expanded only 7 percent since 1970, despite more than $700 billion in federal transportation spending since. With population rising faster than road building, congestion only worsens.

Problem is, many lawmakers see the highway program as a vast piggy bank from which to make withdrawals on behalf of influential constituents. Pushed by selfish, parochial interests, Congress has lost its capacity to refocus the program on mobility and congestion relief. And with money shifting to opportunistic diversions, the White House is reluctant to push for bold program improvements, and instead leaves these flaws unchallenged in hopes of retrieving a few timid reforms.

With the process unlike to self-correct, it's time to look beyond the three competing federal institutions -- House, Senate and president -- and seek help from an independent fourth party.

Why not task an independent, blue ribbon, presidential commission with responsibility for assessing the current program's value, measuring the challenges facing it, and recommending improvements for motorists and truckers?

Granted, there is a long and sorry history of forgettable government commissions, but those created for highways have an excellent track record. Consider the accomplishments of two such distinguished national commissions created in the 1950s.

At that time, a very efficient auto industry and rising prosperity had put a car or two within easy grasp of an American family -- but there was no road network to accommodate the increased traffic. That flaw was noted decades earlier by humorist Will Rogers, who suggested the solution was to let government build the cars and private industry build the roads.

Recognizing the need for action, President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 endorsed a federally assisted national highway program. This led to creation of two highway commissions: The Governor's Conference Special Highway Committee, and the presidential Advisory Committee on a National Highway Program, directed by the distinguished Gen. Lucius Clay, who previously headed the reconstruction of a defeated Germany.

Both commissions advocated a federally funded interstate system, with the Clay Commission recommending financing it with federal debt. That idea made its way into the administration's bill, but not through Congress, which adopted today's fuel tax-funded, pay-as-you go system.

It was just about 50 years ago that these commissions made their reports, and their influence was profound. Much of what they proposed remains with us, but America has changed over the last half-century. Fifty years later, perhaps it's time to revisit the issue with a commission or two every bit as distinguished as the first.

Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Ronald Utt is the Morgan senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

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First appeared in Knight-Ridder Tribune.