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

8:01 AM PDT on March 18, 2010

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 practiceof earmarking in surface transportation reauthorization legislation.Over the last 20 years, we have seen this practice explode, spendingbillions of dollars on the priorities of individual members, resultingin a loss of funding for individual states and a waste of taxpayerdollars. As the Congress looks to consider a new transportation billthis 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 offunding transportation projects. ...

When the Congress passed the last transportation reauthorizationbill in 2006, 11% of the bill, equaling $22 billion, was earmarked. Incomparison, throughout the 1980s, only 1% of transportation funding wasearmarked. This growth in member-requested projects is frustratingbecause 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 theoperation of the federal-aid highway and transit programs. It reducesthe allocations provided for states' core transportation programs andoften funds low-priority, earmarked proposals over the higher-priority,publicly vetted proposals. ...

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

Instead, we should [direct] our efforts towards funding forformula 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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