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Secretary LaHood

Dem. Senator 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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