It seemed only fitting that President Bush signed the long-delayed Transportation Equity Act in Illinois. After all, several million of the total $286 billion allocated by the bill for transportation improvements will be spent on bike and pedestrian paths and nature preserves in that state. Previous transportation bills have contained their share of "pork," to be sure. But the recent bill, larded with allocations for 6,376 such "special interest projects" (accounting for almost 9 percent of total spending), set an all-time record.
Not that Illinois is the only beneficiary. Other congressmen have brought home the bacon for their constituencies as well. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chair Don Young, for example, was able to deliver almost $426 million in funding to his home state, Alaska. The money will be spent on everything from culvert repair to the $230 million "bridge to nowhere" connecting the Alaskan mainland to Gravina Island and its 50 inhabitants. Then there's the $36,000 allocated for a new trolley barn in Harrison, Ark., and funding for a snowmobile trail in Vermont.
In his official statement, President Bush noted that the bill was "designed to improve the nation's highway safety, modernize roads, reduce traffic congestion and create jobs." But critics question how effective the measure will prove to be. Citizens Against Government Waste president Tom Schatz, for one, called it a "fiscal car wreck." (As he so eloquently put it, "The sweet smell of pork has blinded members of Congress to the waste and inefficiency of federal transportation policy.")
So will the Transportation Equity Act prove to be a vehicle for bringing America's infrastructure into the 21st century or a car wreck? As might be expected, the real answer lies somewhere in between.
On the positive side, this bill allocates more funding for freight transportation than any previous legislation. According to the Coalition for America's Gateways and Trade Corridors (CAGTC), more than $4 billion was included for freight movement infrastructure. Projects that will receive much-needed funding include CREATE, a public/private partnership in Chicago that will maximize the use of the city's five rail corridors, with a particular focus on safety and efficiency; and the Alameda Corridor, a recessed 20-mile rail expressway that links the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to the transcontinental rail system. That project is particularly important considering the huge increases in cargo volume moving through the West Coast ports.
But despite the $286 billion funding, most of the bill's critics believe it simply doesn't go far enough. Because of the 12 extensions of the former legislation and the delay in getting the new bill passed, it is already inadequate—and it will expire in 2009. (The six-year term has been reduced to slightly over three.) In a lame attempt to compensate for this, the legislation does create a commission to look at methods of future transportation funding—a move that falls far short of truly addressing these problems.
Nonetheless, key industry leaders are optimistic that the legislation at least enables us to begin a discussion—an in-depth dialogue about where we need to go to ensure that our transportation system is capable of supporting our economic growth. The challenge moving forward, according to John Ficker, president of the National Industrial Transportation League, will be "to get users engaged in the dialogue." And to eliminate any possible confusion about these "users," Ficker pointedly adds: "Shippers must get involved."
We would do well to heed his advice. If we don't, we'll have no one but ourselves to blame three years from now when we find ourselves pedaling down the same old bicycle path.