TRANSPORTATION

Earmarks favor highway building over bridge repair -- report

Lawmakers ignored needed bridge repair in the last transportation spending bill in favor of new highway projects supported by special interests, a government watchdog said today.

U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that 74 of the 704 earmarks in the fiscal 2008 appropriations bill, or roughly 11 percent, targeted bridge repair and maintenance. The vast majority of the remaining earmarks -- a common but controversial practice by lawmakers of tagging federal cash for specific projects -- went to build highways and other construction projects.

"From any kind of transportation planning view, the greatest need of almost any place is the investment in existing infrastructure," said Mark Stout, a former New Jersey Transportation Department planner who worked on the report.

"Clearly, that is not the focus of where earmarks go. Each earmark and each project has its own story, but by and large, it's safe to say a structurally deficient bridge isn't going to be rallied around by a bunch of local elected officials and business interests."

The spending bill was the first that lawmakers drafted after the high-profile 2007 collapse of a Minnesota bridge that killed 13 people. The bridge, built in 1967, had been regarded as structurally deficient since 1990 and had undergone yearly inspections by the state transportation officials beginning in 1993.

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One in eight U.S. bridges is structurally deficient, according to the U.S. Transportation Department. Also, of the more than 150,000 bridges in need of repair or replacement, more than half are considered to be functionally obsolete, meaning they do not pass current standards for weight limits, height clearance or other federal requirements.

Congressional earmarks in the 2008 federal highway program totaled $582 million. According to the report, that amount could have been used to bring roughly 20 structurally deficient bridges per state -- or two bridges per congressional district -- into a state of repair.

Mississippi lawmakers, for instance, earmarked nearly $30 million for 19 different highway projects. But despite a backlog of more than 3,000 structurally deficient bridges in the states, none of the earmarks were for bridge repair, according to the report.

U.S. PIRG said that many of the earmark decisions were tied to 2008 campaign contributions from the corporate highway lobby, which gave more than $80 million to candidates at the national level and $54 million at the state level.

The state level contributions were particularly large, the report says, citing campaign data compiled by the National Institute for Money and State Politics that found the total was more than the $43 million donated by the energy and natural resources lobby.

The authors did not name specific organizations but defined the highway lobby as groups representing developers, transportation groups, and the auto and construction industries.

"In a political system in which elected officials must raise huge sums of campaign contributions from major donors to win reelection, spending may be skewed toward road widening and new highway projects favored by developers, road builders and other interests," the report says.

"Deferring maintenance to build new capacity may seem senseless -- much like a family with a leaky roof who instead builds a new addition -- but it makes sense in Congress if money and politics favor those choices."

Click here to read the report.

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