Lawmakers packed $24 billion in special projects into the transportation bill that finally passed Congress yesterday, including $5.9 million for a Vermont snowmobile trail and $3 million for a documentary about Alaska infrastructure.
The legislation took nearly two years to complete and comes close to the $284 billion cap set by President Bush. Lawmakers were eager to deliver the heaping platter of road-construction dollars, mass-transit support and safety assistance. The package is worth $286.5 billion over six years, a 30 percent increase over the $218 billion program that expired in September 2003.
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, declared when the House passed the bill 412 to 8 yesterday: "This day is a truly momentous day for users of our nation's transportation infrastructure."
The Senate passed the bill 91 to 4. All lawmakers from Maryland and Virginia voted for the measure.
One of the bill's biggest winners is Young's home state. It is awarded $941 million for 119 special projects, according to an analysis by the government watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The group found that Young helped to secure $231 million for a bridge in Anchorage to be named Don Young's Way; $223 million for a bridge to Ketchikan; and $15 million for a Juneau access road, dubbed the Black Ice Highway by group analyst Erich Zimmermann because "that's all you'll see in the winter if this project is built."
The group found 6,376 special projects in the 1,752-page bill. California, Illinois and New York received the largest sums, with Alaska ranking fourth. Next were Texas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma -- the latter being the home state of Sen. James M. Inhofe (R), the bill's chief Senate negotiator.
Despite the transportation bill's popularity, it stumbled all the way to the finish line. Congress had to pass 11 extensions of the previous act while negotiators haggled over funding disparities between states and tried to stay within range of Bush's budget cap.
The bill was temporarily derailed in the House on Thursday night after lawmakers objected to a provision added by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) that would have reopened a runway at Malmstrom Air Force Base that the Pentagon had closed. House members decried the maneuver as a breach of the base-closing process, and Baucus pulled the provision yesterday morning.
In addition to the pork, the bill altered the formula used to allocate highway dollars, increasing the guaranteed minimum rate of return on the amount of gasoline taxes and other revenue that states contribute to the Highway Trust Fund. "Donor states" such as Texas and Florida, which contribute more in tax dollars than they get back in federal aid, secured a minimum 92 percent rate of return beginning in 2008, up from 90.5 percent.
Some states will get huge increases. Missouri's rate of return had fallen to 76 percent in 1989; it secured a 98 percent rate under the new bill, translating into more than $1 billion in additional funds through 2009.
"It has been a long time in coming," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), one of the bill's senior negotiators. Bond wangled an additional $467.5 million in special projects, including $50 million for a bridge in Kansas City, Mo.
Although lawmakers say they are trying to hold down spending, transportation dollars are regarded as among the more meritorious forms of pork.
Lawmakers were proud to list their bounty. For instance, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who leads the House Conservative Caucus and touts himself as a fiscal hawk, issued a news release detailing $16 million in funding that he secured for central Indiana projects. The list includes $3 million to extend a recreational trail in Richmond and $4 million for a nine-mile frontage road in Anderson.
"These projects will spur economic development and improve the quality of life for thousands of Hoosiers," Pence said in the release.
A few lawmakers voiced complaints. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) called the legislation "no way to spend money" and said, "Let's be honest . . . it's busting the budget."