By Clifford F. Lynch
It seemed only fitting that President Bush signed the long-delayed
Transportation Equity Act in Illinois. After all, several million of the total
$286 billion allocated by the bill for transportation improvements will be spent
on bike and pedestrian paths and nature preserves in that state. Previous
transportation bills have contained their share of "pork," to be sure.
But the recent bill, larded with allocations for 6,376 such "special
interest projects" (accounting for almost 9 percent of total spending), set
an all-time record.
Not that Illinois is the only beneficiary. Other congressmen have brought
home the bacon for their constituencies as well. House Transportation and
Infrastructure Committee chair Don Young, for example, was able to deliver
almost $426 million in funding to his home state, Alaska. The money will be
spent on everything from culvert repair to the $230 million "bridge to
nowhere" connecting the Alaskan mainland to Gravina Island and its 50
inhabitants. Then there’s the $36,000 allocated for a new trolley barn in
Harrison, Ark., and funding for a snowmobile trail in Vermont.
In his official statement, President Bush noted that the bill was
"designed to improve the nation’s highway safety, modernize roads, reduce
traffic congestion and create jobs." But critics question how effective the
measure will prove to be. Citizens Against Government Waste president Tom
Schatz, for one, called it a "fiscal car wreck." (As he so eloquently
put it, "The sweet smell of pork has blinded members of Congress to the
waste and inefficiency of federal transportation policy.")
So will the Transportation Equity Act prove to be a vehicle for bringing
America’s infrastructure into the 21st century or a car wreck? As
might be expected, the real answer lies somewhere in between.
On the positive side, this bill allocates more funding for freight
transportation than any previous legislation. According to the Coalition for
America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors (CAGTC), more than $4 billion was
included for freight movement infrastructure. Projects that will receive
much-needed funding include CREATE, a public/private partnership in Chicago that
will maximize the use of the city’s five rail corridors, with a particular
focus on safety and efficiency; and the Alameda Corridor, a recessed 20-mile
rail expressway that links the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to the
transcontinental rail system. That project is particularly important considering
the huge increases in cargo volume moving through the West Coast ports.
But despite the $286 billion funding, most of the bill’s critics believe it
simply doesn’t go far enough. Because of the 12 extensions of the former
legislation and the delay in getting the new bill passed, it is already
inadequate – and it will expire in 2009. (The six-year term has been reduced
to slightly over three.) In a lame attempt to compensate for this, the
legislation does create a commission to look at methods of future transportation
funding – a move that falls far short of truly addressing these problems.
Nonetheless, key industry leaders are optimistic that the legislation at
least enables us to begin a discussion – an in-depth dialogue about where we
need to go to ensure that our transportation system is capable of supporting our
economic growth. The challenge moving forward, according to John Ficker,
president of the National Industrial Transportation League, will be "to get
users engaged in the dialogue." And to eliminate any possible confusion
about these "users," Ficker pointedly adds: "Shippers must get
We would do well to heed his advice. If we don’t, we’ll have no one but
ourselves to blame three years from now when we find ourselves pedaling down the
same old bicycle path.