PORK = Projects Organized for Receiving Kickbacks

Editorial written by James Baughn on Saturday, August 13, 2005

from the don't-show-me-the-money dept.

"Incumbency is the one true bipartisan cause."
-- Anonymous

This is our reward for electing "conservative" Republicans to the White House and Congress: the biggest pile of pork-barrel transportation spending in the history of the United States.

The 2005 transportation bill, signed into law last week by President George "I Don't Veto Anything" Bush, includes unprecedented spending for dubious projects, many of which have little to do with transportation or safety, but have everything to do with politics, greed, egotism, campaign contributions, and buying re-elections.

It's a shame that the Guiness Book of World Records doesn't hand out an award for the "World's Biggest Oxymoron", because the U.S. Congress would have no trouble winning. The official name of the transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU (Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users), is so out of touch with reality that it should be prosecuted as an blatant example of false advertising.

Safety? Yeah right.

Accountable? No. It's standard operating procedure for Congress to never accept accountability or responsibility for its actions.

Flexible? No way. The bill contains 6,376 earmarked special projects that cannot be changed, and solidifies a system where local and state officials have a dwindling say in transportation policy.

Efficient? Hardly. There's nothing efficient about the hundreds of museums, parking lots, beautification programs, bridges to nowhere, and other outrageous dollar-intensive projects in this bill.

Transportation? Not entirely. In typical Congressional fashion, several non-transportation issues were slipped into the bill, such as a "cap on excise taxes on certain fishing equipment", along with an "income tax credit for distilled spirits wholesalers." (Then again, alcohol has led to countless road-related deaths, so I guess this really is a transportation-related issue -- if you abide by the same kind of perverse logic only found in Washington, D.C.)

Equity? Not in the slightest. Many states will continue to "donate" more money in Federal gas taxes than they receive in funding from this bill. The only guaranteed way to provide "equity" would be to repeal the Federal gas tax and allow states to keep 100% of their own damn money. Of course, this move would require Congress and the Federal government to surrender power, authority, and pork-barrel spending opportunities, which will never happen.

Legacy? Whatever. The dictionary defines legacy as "anything handed down as from an ancestor." Indeed, this rotten pile of bloated, wasteful, unfair pork will herald another legacy for future generations to enjoy -- along with a bankrupt Social Security system, an income tax regime nobody can understand, looming budget and trade deficits, and assorted environmental messes that defy solution.

These transportation bills, along with the Federal gas tax that funds them, represent quite a racket for Congress. Everybody is forced to contribute equally, but there's no requirement that the money be distributed evenly. This allows senators and representatives to play favorites for their own personal or career gain.

Incumbents wield the power of pork as a weapon against potential challengers. Veteran lawmakers typically bring home the most bacon for their constituents, providing a convenient reason to vote against newcomers who won't have as much clout in Washington. It's no wonder these bills often receive overwhelming support -- they are designed for congressmen by congressmen.

Take, for instance, Alaska's lone representative, Don Young. As chairman of the House Transportation Committee, he was able to obtain $941 million in earmarked projects for Alaska (fourth only to California, New York and Illinois), while also pulling strings to have the bill partially named for his wife Lu (that explains the "LU" at the end).

He also brought home the bacon to build a $220 million bridge connecting the town of Ketchikan (pop. 8000) with Gravina Island (pop. 50, plus an airport), which could be the world's most expensive bridge to nowhere. In additition, he took advantage of his clout to snatch $229 million for a bridge in Anchorage, which -- no surprises here -- will be named "Don Young's Way" by legislative fiat.

Actually, the name is quite appropriate. Once completed, this bridge will stand tall for decades as a memorial to Don Young's Way of doing business: spending wildly on dubious projects, while people die needlessly at dangerous intersections, risky railroad crossings, structurally deficient bridges, congested freeways, and horrendously sharp curves that the government somehow doesn't have the money to fix.

That's no joke. Recent estimates suggest that fully one-third of all traffic fatalities can be directly attributed to inadequate highways. Even if everybody religiously followed the speed limit and obeyed every single traffic law, fatal accidents would still occur. Some roads are unsafe at any speed.

Many of these hazards could be easily mitigated through the judicious, targeted spending of money to improve specific highways, intersections, and bridges that are known to be dangerous.

But politicians are not interested in how many safety improvements can be obtained with each megabuck of taxpayers' money they spend. They want to know how many votes can be gained, how many campaign contributions can be raised, how many high-profile ribbon-cutting ceremonies can be held, and how many times their name can be attached to ego-boosting projects.

Sometimes we get lucky and the needs of motorists and politicians overlap. Not all of the earmarked projects can be labeled as pork barrel; some are desperately needed or can be reasonably justified. However, the final bill, a 1,752-page orgy of unrestrained spending handed down from the High Priests of D.C., also includes an appallingly large number of "high priority" projects that are anything but.

Along with Rep. Don Young's bridges, here is a sampling of some of the other "interesting" earmarks from the bill:

  • A documentary about Alaska's infrastructure, $3 million

  • Renovation and expansion of the "National Packard Museum" in Warren, Ohio, $2.75 million (this is #5 on the list of high-priority projects!)

  • Landscaping along the Ronald Reagan Freeway in California, $2.3 million (this must be some kind of ironic joke, because in 1987, Reagan pointedly vetoed a transportation bill that didn't even have 1% of the pork of this 2005 incarnation)

  • Construction of an "intermodal center" at the Philadelphia Zoo, $2 million

  • Construction of a "visitor interpretive center" at the Gray Fossil Site in Gray, Tennessee, $1.8 million (I'd like to hear somebody try to explain how fossils exhibits are a "high priority" transportation need)

  • Update of "all county and town traffic signage" in Wayne County, New York, $220,000 (everybody else has been able to pay for their own road signs, but I guess local governments will start lining up at the Federal trough for these too)

  • Building of "additional staircases, landscape, and other improvements to the marsupial bridge at the Holton St. Viaduct" in Milwaukee, $640,000 (Marsupial? I don't even want to know)

This bill stands as another testament to the simple realization that fiscal conservatism is often talked about, but rarely seen. Discretion might be the better part of valor, as the old saying goes, but it won't win very many re-elections in today's political climate.