September 28, 2005

September 28, 2005 | Commentary on Federal Budget

Give up your bike path, bridge for hurricane relief

Everyone can see what hurricanes Katrina and Rita did to the physical landscape of the states that border the Gulf Coast. Less apparent, but just as jolting, is what they've done to the political landscape in Washington. Lawmakers who went home for the August break to brag about the pork they secured for their districts are in a different world now.

It's time they gave constituents a modified message: I've given up funding for those low-priority projects I told you about and asked that the money be rededicated to the hurricane relief effort. There's growing momentum in Washington for such a move.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. - not usually known as a deficit hawk - has agreed to forgo $70 million of the $129 million she won for her San Francisco-area district last year. Leaders of the Republican Study Committee (a group of more than 100 conservative House of Representatives members) have called for rescinding pork-barrel spending, even in their own districts, to support the Gulf Coast rebuilding effort. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., have also called for an exchange of pork for relief.

Shifting priorities?

Could it be that voters are finally telling their representatives to stop trying to buy their votes with projects that are unnecessary or shouldn't be funded by Washington? For instance, can't we all agree that federal highway funds shouldn't be spent on bike, horseback-riding or hiking paths? Or parking garages? Taxpayers in Utah may have a stake in a strong highway system in Virginia, but where Virginians park, hike or ride their horses is their business and should be funded by them.

This one simple principle could yield $12 billion in savings that could be directed to Katrina rebuilding. That's how much could be raised if each state gave back just half its pork.

For instance, Texas' congressional delegation scored $754 million in funding for projects that could be delayed or canceled, such as $3.82 million to construct a Mission Trails Project in San Antonio and $3.3 million for a bike trail at Chacon Creek in Laredo. Virginia, which won more than $500 million, should have an equally easy time finding projects to cut from a list that includes $600,000 to construct horse-riding trails and associated facilities in the High Knob area of Jefferson National Forest and $2.56 million for the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Corridor.

Plenty of choices

Other examples include:

• $3 million for a trail in Richmond, Ind.

• $3 million for the "Rails to Trails" program in Modesto, Calif.

• $5 million for an "intermodal transportation" facility in Bridgeport, Conn.

• $2.75 million to renovate/expand the National Packard Museum and adjacent facilities in Warren, Ohio.

To make matters easier, many of the thousands of projects funded by the $286 billion transportation bill aren't that popular. Even supporters of popular projects are indicating that, for now, that money is better spent on rebuilding the bridges, highways, overpasses and transit infrastructure that Katrina destroyed.

Citizens in Bozeman, Mont., asked local officials to give back $4 million for a downtown parking garage. A fine idea. (Too bad the city commission didn't think so; members voted unanimously on Monday to keep the money.)

Louisiana's lawmakers could help by drastically reducing the $250 billion they've requested in their Katrina relief proposal, which, as The Washington Post reported, would fund "navigation projects that have nothing to do with flood protection."

Letters have appeared in newspapers in Alaska asking that its porkmaster, GOP Rep. Don Young, chairman of the committee that wrote the highway bill, give back both of his "bridges to nowhere." Young says these people are "smoking pot."

But it's beginning to look like those who resist this drive to give back the pork for Katrina relief are the ones with their heads in the clouds

Ronald Utt of Falmouth is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D. Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow

First appeared USA Today