The West shared in a meal of highway pork

 

That wasn’t just a transportation bill that President Bush signed in early July in Illinois. No, the measure — which will spend $286.45 billion in six years on highways, rail and bus service, and biking and hiking trails — has a far more elaborate name.

It’s the "Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act — A Legacy for Users." And thereby hang a few tales about how your government operates.

Catchy bill names have long been the fashion with transportation laws. In 1991, Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, a title which had a point beyond being acronymed as ISTEA so that it could be pronounced — we’re into cute here — "ice tea." The point was to proclaim that this was not just a highway bill; it dealt with all surface transportation. As such, it was at least a start in forging a coherent national transportation policy, not just financing a hodgepodge of road and rail projects to please local businesses and construction contractors.

Seven years later, its replacement was called the "Transportation Equity Act for the Twenty-First Century." This, too, had a purpose beyond maintaining the "TEA" gimmick (it was called TEA-21). The "equity" referred to the bill’s insistence on giving each state a reasonable share of the pie.

As you can see, "equity" remains in the latest incarnation, which also adds safe, accountable, flexible, and efficient. Brave, clean and reverent were taken; besides, their first letters wouldn’t spell SAFETEA.

As for coherent national policy, this bill takes a different approach. Call it the return of the hodgepodge. The new law includes more than 6,000 projects — that’s more than 11 for every member of Congress — that are not part of coherent policy. They’re just stuff senators and congressmen wanted built. They account for $24 billion of the total. The official term for these projects is "earmarks," which is congressese for "pork."

A few examples from around the West:

  • The Western Research Institute in Laramie, Wyo., will get $30 million to research flexible pavement and extending the life of asphalt.


  • Oregon will get $2.88 million for walking and biking paths in Eugene.


  • San Juan County, N.M., will get $800,000 to improve the road into Chaco Culture National Historic Park.


  • Steamboat Springs, Colo., will get $627,000 for buses.


The new law does make some policy changes. Whether they are changes for good or ill depends on whether one thinks more highways should be built where the engineers want them, regardless of whether they would mess up parks, forests, wetlands or charming city neighborhoods. No, nothing in the law specifically calls for messing up anything. But the law makes changes in policy that might lead in that direction, as follows:

  • Anyone thinking about a legal challenge to a transportation project now has a deadline: A suit must be filed within 180 days after a "record of decision" is issued.


  • Transit planners may bypass the National Environmental Policy Act in favor of a new process. The new process is similar to NEPA "and not cataclysmic," in the words of Deron Lovaas, who lobbied against the change on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council. But:


  • The new law gives natural resource agencies (Parks, Fish and Wildlife, Forest Service and their state counterparts) relatively less influence over the final decision. It gives more influence to state and federal transportation agencies.


  • One section effectively repeals part of the 1966 transportation law limiting construction in certain historic, natural or recreational areas unless there is "no prudent or feasible alternative." This was the law that stopped, among other monstrosities, the plan to build an elevated highway across the French Quarter in New Orleans. Now, the secretary of Transportation may waive the requirement to seek alternative routes.


This may not be cataclysmic, either, it depends on who the secretary of Transportation is. To no small extent, this law makes the day-to-day working of transportation policy far more political. Just who will benefit depends on who wins the elections, which is arguably how public policy should be determined.

But back to what may be the biggest of the "earmarks." It is a 13,500-foot-long bridge — perhaps costing a billion dollars — across Knick Arm between Anchorage, Alaska, and a sparsely populated area to the north. There are plenty of other projects of equally debatable necessity. But this is the work of Rep. Don Young, the Alaska Republican who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructures. Though the bill, two years in the making, was genuinely a cooperative effort among congressmen, senators and the administration, Young was perhaps first among equals in forging it. Appropriately, the bridge will be named for him.

Jon Margolis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). He writes about the doings in Washington, D.C., from a safe distance, in Vermont.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.