Earmarks and Transportation Funding

From Spring 2011

Message from the Executive Director

By Victor Lindenheim

Executive Director, 

Golden State Gateway Coalition

“Earmarks” refer to federal funding allotments (or tax breaks) for specific projects requested by individual members of Congress.  

Most earmarked money goes to worthy projects of great benefit to many constituents in a congressman’s district or state.  Funding for a specific transportation project is a typical example of the good that can be delivered via earmarks.  

In northern Los Angeles County, think roadway improvements to Interstates 5 and 405, Highway 101 and the Cross Valley Connector in the Santa Clarita Valley.

On the surface, earmarks seem to work nicely when there is a strong economy, a seemingly steady funding source (e.g. federal gas tax revenue) and projects of broad public benefit, creating jobs and generating economic growth. Unfortunately, every news outlet and blog will remind you that this is not the case today.

The economy is generally weak and gas tax revenues are flat or declining. Certainly in transportation, the projects in need of federal funding are there, but the local required funding matches are often not.

So, the mere appearance of a special deal for individual members of Congress does not sit well with many, even if it is for a worthwhile, beneficial roadway, bridge or transit system improvement. We’ve become jaded by reports of bridges to nowhere and make-work landscaping projects paid for by our hard-earned tax dollars. 

In a competitive funding landscape one legislator’s justified priority may be viewed by another as a tax-dollar-wasting boondoggle. 

Funding for roads, no matter how well-demonstrated the need and benefits, has become a victim of the “everybody needs to take a haircut” mentality. 

The problem is, transportation, including roads and transit, has been taking a proverbial haircut for a long time, in both good times and bad. We spent the money on other things.  Things that were deemed more important by those who had the power or the authority to make that determination.

What are the alternatives to earmarks?  

One alternative to earmarks would be distribution by formula — a percentage of a fixed, ostensibly smaller total funding allotment based on factors to be determined, going to each state or political subdivision (e.g. congressional districts?). 

Another alternative suggested would be distribution through the agency or agencies with administrative oversight authority (e.g. DOT?).  These alternatives, some would argue, would not be immune to congressional influence and tinkering. The result would be earmarking by a different name. 

A colleague of mine recently noted that elimination of federal earmarks by itself would not necessarily reduce spending. Setting priorities is one way to reduce spending and setting priorities for any organization is hard.  

Admittedly, agreeing on project priorities among 535 federal legislators is even harder, bordering on the impossible. But, it has been done.  And the earmarking process, I believe, can be improved and adapted to current realities. Dealing with egregiously conflicting political philosophies is another matter altogether, an issue I won’t even attempt to address.  But, as has been said, transportation needs transcend politics — highways aren’t red or blue.    

Earmarks, done with transparency and based on merit, are good. There are certainly enough examples of that. The examples of earmark abuses, although far less numerous, are ample enough and cited often enough to give traction to the idea of banning them altogether in the House of Representatives.  

So now the engine, instead of being repaired, is being thrown out with the oil change, so to speak. 

In the context of transportation funding, earmarks are examples of a good idea gone wrong. I hope that Plan B, whatever that turns out to be, works out better for the nation, for California and for northern Los Angeles County.