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McCaskill Asks LaHood to ‘Put an End to’ Transportation Earmarks

When House leaders agreed last week to ban earmarks to for-profit entities, tax and transportation projects got a notable exemption. But that doesn't mean Congress has no appetite to curb transport earmarks, as Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) showed in a letter sent this week to U.S. DOT chief Ray LaHood.

McCaskill_Claire.jpgSen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) (Photo: William Woods)

McCaskill, known for fiscal hawkishness, asked LaHood to "work with me to put an end to this practice" of earmarking money in long-term federal transportation policy bills, which allot six years' worth of highway trust fund revenue to specific local projects.

McCaskill said the growth in congressional earmarking of transport funds "distorts the operation of the federal-aid highway and transit programs" because lawmaker-directed spending circumvents state and local "planning, review, and selection processes."

That broad characterization of transportation earmarks is true in a large number of cases, but many others benefit projects that have already met with approval from state and local planners.

Grants under the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts program, for example, are historically earmarked by lawmakers eager to see aid flow to local rail and bus systems, but each project has already made it through an extensive vetting process. In other instances, earmarks help cash-strapped transit agencies complete environmental and engineering studies that might not be possible without federal assistance -- such as the $6 million in planning funds that Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) directed to Chicago's Circle Line proposal last year.

Earmark reforms adopted by the House transportation committee last year ask lawmakers to document the local benefits and other sources of funding for favored projects.

Check out excerpts from McCaskill's letter to LaHood after the jump.

Dear Mr. Secretary,

I am writing to express my concern about the continuing practice of earmarking in surface transportation reauthorization legislation. Over the last 20 years, we have seen this practice explode, spending billions of dollars on the priorities of individual members, resulting in a loss of funding for individual states and a waste of taxpayer dollars. As the Congress looks to consider a new transportation bill this year, I ask that you work with me to put an end to this practice so that we return to a more equitable and thoughtful distribution of funding transportation projects. ...

When the Congress passed the last transportation reauthorization bill in 2006, 11% of the bill, equaling $22 billion, was earmarked. In comparison, throughout the 1980s, only 1% of transportation funding was earmarked. This growth in member-requested projects is frustrating because earmarks bypass the planning, review, and selection processes of the state and local governments and agencies.

That is not to say that these projects are without merit. Many of them would be worthwhile initiatives; but earmarking distorts the operation of the federal-aid highway and transit programs. It reduces the allocations provided for states' core transportation programs and often funds low-priority, earmarked proposals over the higher-priority, publicly vetted proposals. ...

With our current budgetary situation and the escalating federal debt, we cannot allow the process of earmarking to continue. Determining how to prioritize transportation projects cannot be and should not be decided by individual members of Congress. Our state and local projects, working with federal agencies, are better equipped to know what the priorities should be for addressing our infrastructure needs.

Instead, we should [direct] our efforts towards funding for formula and competitive grant programs as was originally intended by the Congress. This will result in better and more equitable distribution of funding, better use of taxpayer money, and transportation projects that work for everyone. ...

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