Highway bill is heavy with 'pork' Lawmakers say funding reflects voters' desire.

December 12, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

WASHINGTON -- Lots of people get by with vanity license plates, but Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, R-Ark., evidently wanted something a bit more grand:

A vanity highway.

So deep inside the transportation bill passed by Congress this fall is a provision by Hammerschmidt to put up signs, at taxpayers' expense, identifying part of U.S. 71 in Arkansas as the "John Paul Hammerschmidt Highway."

When erected, those signs will also serve as a symbol of this year's premier exercise in old-fashioned pork-barrel spending. They're part of a sweeping six-year bill, hailed as revolutionary by lawmakers but still filled with more than $5.4 billion of pet projects and favors, triple the number in the last highway bill.

Lawmakers ordered up everything from building new superhighways down to changing how a traffic light operates during rush hour in Chambersburg, Pa.

"The pork-mongering has reached the point of self-caricature," said David Mason, an analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation. "It's hard to imagine going much further."

Is this any way to run a national transportation policy?

Several studies have indicated that the entire $151 billion bill does not include enough money to adequately maintain the nation's roads and transit systems. Every dollar diverted for a frivolous purpose leaves the country further behind.

Lawmakers, however, are simply reflecting the desires of the voters when they concentrate on local projects, said Steve Smith, a University of Minnesota political scientist.

"It always irritates me when people pick on Congress for living up to their constituents' expectations," Smith said.

But Mason said Congress had lost sight of its obligation to consider the general welfare of the entire nation.

"We've gotten to the point," he said, "where there's no pretense of a national interest in much of this."

However, the local interests of powerful lawmakers are evident:

* The small city of Altoona, Pa., will get $30 million for a high-tech "moving sidewalk." Altoona is in the district of Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., ranking minority member of the Public Works and Transportation Subcommittee on Surface Transportation.

Altoona's 50,000 residents are also likely to enjoy a $35 million monorail included in the bill, although it could go elsewhere.

* Bannock and Caribou counties in Idaho will get $10.1 million to relieve "traffic congestion" problems. Caribou County has 6,963 residents, roughly four per square mile, according to the 1990 Census.

Steve Symms, R-Idaho, is the ranking minority member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Transportation.

* New York City will receive $69.2 million in highway money to rebuild a beach by dredging sand up from the ocean. The money will also go to move the beach's lifeguard stations.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., heads the transportation subcommittee.

* New Jersey will be able to waive federal rules and regulations, including environmental and health standards, for two highway projects.

Rep. Robert A. Roe, D-N.J., is chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee.

* Parts of 18 obscure county roads in North Dakota, otherwise not eligible for federal aid, will be paved at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of about $50 million.

Sen. Quentin N. Burdick, D-N.D., is chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

* More than $260 million for new "high-priority" highways was included within Hammerschmidt's Arkansas district. He is senior Republican on the House Public Works and Transportation Committee.

Money also spread in other ways as well. A $1 billion "equity adjustment" fund was added to the bill for the states of key lawmakers from Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Maine, West Virginia and others.

When asked to explain the purpose of the fund, Surface Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Norman Y. Mineta, D-Calif., gestured as if dealing out dollar bills.

Lawmakers also used the transportation bill to lock up research money for universities in their home states. In the past, such grants have often been divided in open competition.

But the bill sets up national transportation and research centers at more than 12 schools, with funding ranging from $242,000 to $3 million.

There was more. A $4 billion fund was established to reimburse states for building multi-lane toll roads before the Interstate System began, even though most were paid for long ago. Long-term cost of the plan could exceed $40 billion.

Moynihan was the architect of the proposal, from which New York expects to collect more than $675 million over six years. Other states that would benefit are California, Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Many of the more than 500 special projects in the bill do meet legitimate needs. But others illustrate how the political spoils system is alive and well on Capitol Hill, even in an era of $350 billion federal deficits.

Leaders of the public works committees found it most wise to be generous with their constituents. More than a third of the project money goes to the states of seven senior members of the committees.

"Number one, they handed out money to people on their own committees," said Rep. Charles E. Bennett, D-Fla. "Number two . . . they handed out money to anybody they thought was in doubt."

But the bill's authors say they were just trying to make sure the money was spent where it was needed.

"We make no apologies whatsoever," Roe said before the bill passed. "Pork is pork in another person's district, but if it's yours, it's a great achievement."

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