[UPDATED POST: This post has been updated to reflect newer, 2006 data. Edits to the original post and comment are set off in brackets.]
Congressional earmarks have received renewed attention as debate heats up over funding transportation infrastructure. Over the last decade, Congress has earmarked a growing amount of important highway and transit dollars. In the last highway bill, $24 billion was set aside in 6,373 earmarks — about 10 percent of the total spending for five years through 2009.
According to analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense, Minnesota ranked 18th among the states, with 495 million earmark dollars attached to the 2005 transportation bill before it passed. The final total was trimmed to $302 million in the final House bill — or about $50 million a year — but we moved up to 11th place. With our state's heavily gridded farm-to-market road systems, that 11th place may not be out of line. And that’s still far short of the nearly $722 million reserved for Alaska, where the vast majority of Americans will never traverse a foot of road.
In a recent column that heaps scorn on Rep. Jim Oberstar for earmark projects, Katherine Kersten implies that this money would have been better applied to road maintenance and bridge repair.
She has a point about earmarks being potentially wasteful, but neglects to make clear a larger one: The federal government is investing only about $50 billion a year, less the 10 percent "earmark discount." Funding diverted for earmarks remains a relatively small amount compared with the overall need for investment in the nation's transportation system.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has estimated that $73.8 billion a year was needed "to significantly improve system performance in an economically justifiable manner" for the nation's highways and bridges.] The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated in its 2005 report card on the nation's infrastructure that spending $94 billion a year was needed "to improve transportation infrastructure conditions nationally." And they said repairing all structurally deficient bridges would take at least $9.4 billion a year over 20 years.
[UPDATE: The U.S. Department of Transportation, for its part, has estimated that $78.8 billion a year was needed from all levels of government for the nation’s highways and bridges in order to “maintain the current level of highway system performance.” And in order to carry out all cost-beneficial actions to improve the nation’s highways and bridges, all levels of government would need to invest $131.7 annually.
But the combined estimated total for federal, state and local capital expenditures on highways and bridges stood at $70.3 billion — $8.5 billion short of what was needed to maintain the system and $61.4 billion short of what would be required if all the cost-beneficial improvements were to be instituted.
Note: These numbers come from the updated version of the 2004 USDoT Federal Highway Administration Report I cited in an earlier comment —"Status of the Nation's Highways, Bridges, and Transit: 2006 Conditions and Performance." The numbers cited above do not include the transit investment. As I noted in the now-amended comment, the report contains plenty of data. An executive summary is here.]
Eliminating earmarks won't fix the investment problem.
Even with some worthy projects included, 10 percent is too much money spent without any accountability. Earmarks undercut local planning, decision-making and spending authority. And when states decline to contribute funds to these projects, they are losing more than the federal money for the earmarked project because their original total allocation was reduced by the amount set aside.
In some cases, this sort of Congressional micromanagement might be seen as an attempt to free more money for districts hamstrung by state legislatures that refuse to devote sufficient revenue to transportation. The problem is this money becomes subject to the “substitution effect.” If states believe federal funding might be forthcoming, they’ll be even more reluctant to spend state dollars.
But Minnesota’s Department of Transportation has a highly regarded and much more sound and proper way of prioritizing projects, so earmarks are really pretty irrelevant when it comes to federal spending affecting underinvestment at the state and local level.
Making this federal problem a local partisan issue, as Kersten did, is not helpful, and we don’t want to play that game. Yes, earmarks exploded under the Bush Administration and GOP majority, but they're taken on a broad, bipartisan basis. And some of the strongest resistance against earmarks comes from conservative think tanks and members of Congress.
From a Growth & Justice perspective, having sufficient money to invest is entwined with public trust in the system. That trust comes from broad citizen input, responsible spending in areas with the greatest payoff and accountability for results.
Earmarks are none of the above.
— Charlie Quimby