ITD News
Associated Press
News Link

Highway bill should focus on real needs

By Rep. C.L. “Butch” Otter
Earlier this month I voted no as the U.S. House of Representatives passed a six-year, $283 billion highway funding bill, 357-65. The measure is loaded with expensive and unnecessary pet projects designed to curry favor and win votes for members of Congress. Mine was a vote for fiscal responsibility, budget discipline, efficiency and safety.

Beyond the pork, part of my problem with the bill was its failure to do anything meaningful about lengthy legal and bureaucratic delays in authorized, fully funded and badly needed construction projects, like those along some of the deadlier sections of U.S. Highway 95.


To begin with, Jim (Fisher, Lewiston Morning Tribune) alleged that improving the highway was an example of pork-barrel funding, since then-Sen. Dirk Kempthorne got money earmarked specifically for the work before he returned to Idaho to run for governor.

Since when does pork include making a narrow, heavily traveled highway safer?

Indeed, there are similarly important projects in the legislation passed by the House, including some for U.S. 95. But the bill also includes far too much startlingly wasteful and inappropriate spending on such items as:

  • $1.5 million for the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan
  • $4 millon for a parking facility in Illinois
  • $2.5 million for the Blue Ridge Music Center in Virginia
  • $2 million for a high-speed catamaran ferry in Massachusetts
  • $1 million for a Transportation and Heritage Museum in Tennessee
  • $4 million for graffiti removal in Queens and Brooklyn, New York

Projects like that save no lives and do nothing to improve the efficiency of our corridors of commerce. What’s more, they contribute to an overall spending increase of nearly 32 percent, and almost $27 billion more than President Bush requested. Those are taxpayer dollars, paid every time you put gas in your car to get to work or pick up your kids at school.

Those of us in Congress have an obligation to invest your tax money wisely. Improvements to U.S. 95 are the best kind of investment of user fees – because that’s what fuel taxes are – that we can make. But environmental extremists turning common sense on its ear and bureaucrats justifiably worried about getting sued have made such projects more about paperwork and lawsuits than asphalt and concrete.

The Idaho Transportation Department says planning and permitting for major projects, before actual construction even begins, now averages 62 to 74 months. That’s five or six years. So under current conditions you can expect to see work get under way in 2010 on a project approved today. Meanwhile, costs increase, jobs aren’t created, highways remain unsafe and prople keep dying.

Eight Idaho projects worth $26 million remain on hold nearly six years after the last highway bill was approved. As bad as that is, it represents a big improvement since I took office in 2001, when 24 projects with estimated construction costs totaling $73 million were being delayed. The Idaho Transportation Department’s hard work and new partnerships with federal agencies since President Bush took office have helped.

However, streamling provisions still are needed to protect the environment and maintain public participation while cutting through the red tape and speeding up the process. Unfortunately, part of the House bill that was intended to accomplish that goal might actually have penalized states that have been most progressive in implementing efficient environmental review processes. We must do better.

We can have safer roads and a clean environment. We can have good jobs and healthy wildlife. And we can do something about the time-consuming and costly processes that serve only to erode public confidence and stifle progress.

But the answer is not wasting your money on museums, music centers and lawyers. We must see to it that local priorities are addressed as quickly as possible, and that the tax dollars of Idaho drivers go toward making the highways they travel safer and more efficient.

Return to Transporter Main Page
The Transporter is updated on Fridays