All aboard federal gravy train Capitol Hill turning hungry eye on dollars for transportation

March 30, 1997|By DAVID SAFFORD

WASHINGTON — TC WASHINGTON -- Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a 2nd District Republican, wants the federal government to ante up $18.7 million over the next five years to finish rebuilding the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

He also wants $200 million to upgrade the MARC commuter rail system. In fact, the entire Maryland delegation thinks that's such a good idea that all of its members have all signed a letter asking the federal government to pay for it.

Take a number and get in line, folks. There are a lot of legislators ahead of you and there's no guarantee that you'll be served.

Everyone on Capitol Hill, it seems, is jockeying for position because Congress is planning to set aside a portion of federal highway funds for a select group of local transportation projects. And though that portion is likely to be small, nine out of every 10 members of the House already have staked claims on some of that money for their districts.

Exactly who gets the cash won't be known until later this year, when Congress reauthorizes the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). Meanwhile, the allocation of money will be a matter of hot debate and even hotter politics.

No one really knows how much money will ultimately be set aside for individual projects. Congress is still wrangling over the total amount it should authorize, while the Clinton administration suggested this month eliminating "earmarks" altogether in its $175 billion transportation package.

Based on experience, however, Congress will probably reserve only a small percentage of the total available funds for individual projects, such as repairing a specific bridge or laying a stretch of blacktop.

Under current surface transportation law, for example, about 4 percent of total highway funds was set aside for this purpose. Total spending was about $6.12 billion out of $156 billion over the six-year span of ISTEA, according to Jeff Nelligan, spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

"That is a drop of a drop," Nelligan said. "That is nothing."

But it has not dissuaded at least 388 House members - including the eight-member Maryland delegation - from clamoring for a taste of that drop. Although the total amount all members have requested has not been calculated, it's safe to assume it would greatly exceed all available federal transportation funds, if not the gross domestic product of many smaller nations.

With such intense demand for limited dollars, political maneuvering is inevitable. Indeed, transportation money has long been a staple of lawmakers seeking to bring federal dollars - and jobs - home to their districts. And few lawmakers seeking re-election in 1998 want to go home empty-handed.

The maneuvering to get a shot at this money began before the 105th Congress convened, when the House Transportation Committee was deluged with member requests to serve on the panel. In response, the House leadership increased the size of the committee to 73 members, the largest in the history of Congress.

Maryland Reps. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a 1st District Republican, and Elijah E. Cummings, a 7th District Democrat, had served on the panel in the previous Congress, and they returned to fill their coveted seats this year. Although their presence on the committee is no guarantee that Maryland might get extra transportation spending money, their presence certainly doesn't hurt.

The politics continue to brew now that the panel has completed hearings on requests for individual projects, a spectacle that saw legislative supplicants filing into the hearing room by the dozen to plead their cases.

But some people are concerned that members in powerful positions, such as committee chairmen, might use their influence to hijack the money and steer it to their own districts.

"I don't think [the money] is going to be handed out on an equitable basis," said Ralph DeGennaro, a former House staff member who is executive director of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It will be handed out to members who are powerful or who make promises to the committee."

Despite his doubts, DeGennaro concedes that the committee has tried to tighten its procedures by developing a 14-point test to try to determine the merits of each request, including requiring the state department of transportation to support the proposal.

"But I am not naive enough to think that merit will determine who gets demonstration projects and who gets coal in their stockings," he noted. His organization is calling on Congress to adopt a blanket policy of "no pork-barrel projects."

Nelligan, of the House Transportation Committee, bristled at the suggestion that these individual projects were nothing more than congressional pork.

"What is 'pork'?" he asked. "Is it because highways aren't used? Is it because members don't know the transportation needs of their own districts?

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