The White House Transportation Budget: What’s In Line for the Axe?

In a fiscal year 2011 budget that proposes to increase spending on several core transportation
priorities, the White House also aims to eliminate a few
infrastructure programs that may prove popular with lawmakers.

KCH_1.jpgSen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) used the STP program to earmark millions of dollars for road projects in his home state, including the above "King Coal Highway." (Photo: MCRA of WV)

Among the budget items slated for elimination are a $10 million fund
aimed at helping cities and towns adapt to climate change, $34 million in
rail line relocation grants — which, the White House noted, is siphoned off by
congressional earmarking rather than a merit-based process — and a $12
million inter-city bus security program that was unsuccessfully
targeted in last year’s budget.

But the largest proposed funding cut under the U.S. DOT’s
purview is
the Surface Transportation Priorities (STP)
program, which distributed $293 million last year to an array of local road, bridge, and trail projects earmarked by members of Congress.

The STP program is "not subject to merit-based criteria or competition; nor are states or localities given the flexibility to target them to their highest transportation priorities," the White House wrote in explaining its bid to zero out the spending.

Eliminating STP funding (which the Obama administration proposed to do in its budget for the current fiscal year) is likely to prove a heavy lift with lawmakers who depend on politically valuable transportation earmarks to win favor with voters. The program is a longtime favorite of road-building stalwarts such as former Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-WV), who earmarked more than $20 million in STP money for West Virginia roads in 2008 alone.

However, STP money has also benefited clean transportation projects that might not otherwise have secured federal aid. In recent years, lawmakers have steered program funds to build a trail along Connecticut’s Quinnipiac River ($1.4 million), conduct a seismic retrofit of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge ($1.9 million), and build new parks in Louisville, Kentucky ($5.8 million in 2008, courtesy of Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell).

Will the administration succeed in its latest effort to slim down congressional transportation earmarking? The first clues are likely to emerge later this month and next month, when Transportation Secretary LaHood and other U.S. DOT officials begin their rounds of testimony on Capitol Hill.

  • “and build new parks in Louisville, Kentucky”
    That park is a “bike path to nowhere”, earmarked as a political favor to wealthy entrepreneurs who plan to develop nearby land into suburban sprawl. Its transportation value is basically zero. It never should have received transportation funding. You want to build a park? Great, go build a park with park money.

  • Surface Transportation Program (STP) funds are a core part of the FHWA distribution to the states. As a general rule, it is up to the states to decide how to allocate them. True, they are an earmark magnet (since earmarks generally come out of a given state’s STP funds). But on the flip side, eliminating STP funding without providing an alternative will eliminate most streets and roads (those that are not Interstates or on the National Highway System) from receiving federal highway funds.

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