The trouble with pork

August 30, 2007

A proposal to raise the federal gasoline tax to repair the nation's 70,000 faulty bridges might have a better chance if it hadn't been for the "Bridge to Nowhere."

The infamous Alaska structure designed to serve a handful of remote citizens became a symbol of what's wrong with the practice of letting federal lawmakers "earmark" tax dollars for their pet projects: The money is not being spent according to safety and transportation priorities.

Before Congress asks taxpayers to pony up more money to fix failing bridges, it must abandon this pork barrel process and ensure instead that transportation dollars are directed to where they are most needed.

Federal gasoline tax revenue is apportioned to the states by formula. Those funds, in turn, are budgeted by state officials according to their priorities. These decisions aren't necessarily perfect, or pure of politics, but they are made close to home after much consultation.

Increasingly, members of Congress have been deciding on their own how they want federal transportation money to be spent and including those instructions in legislation in the form of earmarks. The $286 billion, five-year transportation bill enacted in 2005 included 6,373 earmarks, totaling $24 billion, all designated on the basis of the clout of the lawmaker making the request.

Maryland's $3.5 billion share of the federal gas tax money was reduced by nearly $308 million to pay for the preferred projects of the state's congressional delegation, which included upgrades, interchanges and bypasses around the state, water taxi terminals in Baltimore, Eastern Shore bike trails and a visitors center for Fort McHenry.

Outrage at the earmark process developed shortly after the 2005 bill was passed when the fine print revealed a $223 million bridge for rural Alaska linking Ketchikan and tiny Gravina Island, home to 50 people and an airport. Congress later removed the Bridge to Nowhere earmark so the money could be spent as state officials saw fit. A ferry appears the likely choice.

The dilapidated shape of the nation's bridges cannot be blamed solely on a lack of money when so much has been spent so poorly. Minnesota Rep. James L. Oberstar wants to increase the federal gasoline tax by five cents per gallon for three years to raise $25 billion for bridge repairs - just slightly more than the price tag on those 2005 earmarks.

There are plenty of worthy projects that could be financed with federal gas tax money. But those decisions should be weighed against other related uses of the money, with a priority assigned to safety and need.

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