With United States Transportation policy now on the eighth extension of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) and nobody exactly sure when a new transportation bill will be passed, (maybe March 2012 or maybe not until 2013), I wanted to highlight some of the “creative” uses of gas tax revenue. Gas tax revenue was originally intended to support highway construction. Since the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982, the fund has also supported transit. While this by itself is problematic, since the gas tax is supposed to be a user fee, SAFETEA-LU uses gas tax money to fund programs that have nothing to do with transportation. Here are three of the most inappropriate uses of highway funds.
Noxious Weeds and Aquatic Noxious Weeds: Perhaps people can no longer traverse I-95 without being attacked by noxious weeds or aquatic noxious weeds. What else could explain the fact that both National Highway System (NHS) funds and Surface Transportation Funds (STF) can now fund removal of these evil plants? Perhaps the local plants are xenophobic? Clearly invasive species can have damaging consequences to a local ecosystem. However the proper place for the federal government to address this issue (if there is a proper place) is in Environmental legislation. While these weeds may be annoying, they have nothing to do with maintaining or building new highways. The aquatic noxious weeds program seems especially bizarre, since I am not aware of any highways that travel through lakes and rivers.
Denali Access System Program: Although Alaska is the largest state by size in the country, it has less road mileage than Rhode Island, the smallest state in the country. Since Alaska is very sparsely populated, many of the smaller towns are not connected by road to other smaller towns. This is not a major problem but perhaps a few new roads are justifiable. Does this project fund transportation projects? No, its purpose is to fund Economic Development projects with transportation funds. So far the Denali Commission, which is the federal/state agency that chooses the projects, has funded a hospital in Barrow, a solid waste project in Kotzebue, the Division of Juvenile Justice in Nome, and bridge design in Anaktuvuk Pass. By the way Kotzebue and Anaktuvuk Pass are not on the American Automobile Association Alaska map because they are very small towns. The National Gas Tax is supposed to fund projects that are national in scope. I could not find a single project funded by the Denali Access System Program that qualified.
Bad Earmarks: Earmarks are unnecessary, but some are clearly more frivolous than others. There are a total of 5,173 high priority (remove euphemism) earmarked projects in SAFETEA-LU. Here are a few of my favorites in the first part of the document. Ohio received $2,750,000 to renovate and expand the National Packard Museum and adjacent historic Packard facilities. How is this related to transportation? It is not but that it is a minor detail. New York received $15,000,000 to purchase three ferries and establish ferry system form Rockaway Peninsula to Manhattan. This might be a useful project but there is already a provision in the bill that allocates money to ferries. Louisiana received $400,000 to develop a master transportation plan for the New Orleans Regional Medical Center. And why could the city or the state or the hospital not have funded this? Pennsylvania received $1,600,000 to construct the Great Allegheny Passage of the Montour Hiking Trail. I know my preferred method for hauling cargo across mountains is by foot. Glennville Georgia, with a population of 3,641 received $400,000 to improve sidewalks, upgrade lighting, and install landscaping. If you combine all of the earmarks in the bill they total $19.24 billion. This is not small change.
America badly needs a new transportation bill. But it needs to be a bill that is focused on national priorities, not local boondoggles. Our highway bill funded by highway gas taxes started moving astray by funding transit, then non-motorized transportation, and now noxious weed removal, hospitals, and museum renovations. We must work hard to remove all the turkeys from the next transportation bill. Maybe the turkeys will eat the noxious weeds on I95?