NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Highway Robberies

October 10, 1997

Congress is considering how to apportion several hundred billion dollars in highway funds among the states over the next six years. Balanced-budget advocates fear the pressure to satisfy all groups with an interest in transportation spending will tempt lawmakers to exceed the parameters of the budget agreement they reached only two months ago.

After Medicaid, transportation funds are the biggest federal grants to states, and competition between the states for a bigger share of the pot is fierce, according to observers.

  • Legislation in the Senate would authorize spending of $181 billion over six years for highway and mass transit programs, with the House considering budget-busting spending of $218 billion.
  • Spending under the old six-year law, which expired September 30, totaled $157 billion.
  • States in the South and West contend their share should increase since allocations six years ago, in 1991, were based on outdated 1980s census data -- which failed to reflect high rates of population growth in those areas over the past several decades.
  • Northeastern states claim their roads and bridges need more money because they are older, are more crowded and require more weather-related maintenance.

In an effort to smooth over regional rivalries, both the House and Senate bills would require that all states get back at least 90 cents on every $1 they have contributed to the highway trust fund.

However, critics claim highway bills are larded with wasteful and unnecessary projects that have nothing to do with roads. For example:

  • $1 billion a year for environmental programs -- including a wetlands restoration project in the Senate legislation.
  • Some $3 million for a television documentary lauding the benefits of public works programs.
  • Then there's $4.5 million for a Center for National Scenic Byways in Duluth, Minnesota, in the district of Rep. James Oberstar, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee.
  • And $12.4 million over three years for a New River Parkway Visitors Center in West Virginia.

"There's a plate of cookies on the windowsill, and Mom's not around," says Martha Phillips of the Concord Coalition. "They know it's wrong, but they really want those cookies."

Source: Paul Wiseman, "Lining Up For Highway Dollars," USA Today, October 10, 1997.


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