NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 18, 2007

Despite past debate on the poor condition of the nation's bridges, the situation was largely ignored before the recent Minneapolis bridge collapse.  For decades, Congress has  diverted Highway Trust Fund dollars away from potentially life-saving construction and repair to pork-barrel and earmarked projects (projects requested by individual members of Congress for their constituencies), say Heidi Sommer, a policy intern, and H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

For instance, the 2005 highway bill contained $2 billion annually for bridge reconstruction.  The House Transportation Committee considered increasing that figure to $3 billion a year, but instead Congress stuffed the bill with nearly 6,500 pork-barrel projects costing more than $24 billion.  This is about the same amount Rep. Jim Oberstar's (D-Minn.) proposed tax increase would raise.  "High-priority" transportation projects in the 2005 legislation included:

  • $315 million for the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" intended to replace a 7-minute ferry ride to the Ketchikan Airport in Alaska.
  • $5 million to improve air quality in the Sacramento region of California.
  • $4 million for bike paths and public parks near New River in Calexico, Calif.
  • $4 million for streetscape, pedestrian improvements in Clarkson, Ga.

The 2008 transportation appropriations bill seems likely to continue this trend, with more than $2.2 billion in earmarks.  Indeed, many billions of dollars have been diverted from highway funding to other programs:

  • Only 60 percent of federal gas taxes goes to the construction and maintenance of highways and bridges. 
  • Thirty percent goes to subsidize construction and maintenance of public transit facilities, such as bus terminals, light rail and subway systems.
  • The remaining 10 percent is diverted to other projects -- currently 6,000 projects -- including bike paths, museums, nature trails, historic building repairs and so forth.

Source: Heidi Sommer and H. Sterling Burnett, "Repairing Bridges without Raising Gas Taxes," National Center for Policy Analysis, Brief Analysis No. 597, October 18, 2007.

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