Earmarks Aren’t Helping Congress or the Taxpayers

Rep. John Mica’s July 30 letter equates the U.S. Department of Transportation’s innovative Urban Partnership Agreement program in 2007 with congressional earmarking. That is a grossly misleading comparison.

The “unelected bureaucrats” at DOT used funds legally available to DOT to hold a national competition for innovative congestion-reduction projects in urban areas. To have a chance at winning, applicants had to be willing to implement some form of congestion pricing within several years of receiving the grant funding, while simultaneously improving transit, fostering telecommuting, and employing advanced technology. The Urban Partnership Agreement competition stimulated a flurry of activity and creative thinking among state DOTs and metropolitan planning organizations. The five winning proposals were selected on their merits as best meeting the requirements set forth in the competitive solicitation.

This open, competitive process to stimulate real innovation in reducing congestion stands in sharp contrast to the out-of-control earmarking of pet projects by members of Congress as part of enacting highway legislation.

Americans have lost their trust in the Highway Trust Fund because it has become a politicized public works program, with the money either doled out by formula or earmarked for maximum political gain to individual members. The “Refocus, Reform, Renew” proposal released earlier this week by Secretary Mary Peters would change that, making significant portions of federal transportation funding available on a competitive basis, for projects linked to important national goals, like reducing urban traffic congestion. Last year’s successful Urban Partnership competition was a demonstration of this better way to invest federal transportation dollars.

Robert W. Poole Jr.
Reason Foundation
Plantation, Fla.

Robert W. Poole, Jr. is director of transportation studies at Reason Foundation, where he has advised the last four presidential administrations. An archive of his work is here. Reason’s transportation research is here.