The return of the hodgepodge

  • Jon Margolis

  • Barrels

    Richard Crowson

That wasn’t just a transportation bill that President Bush signed earlier this month in Illinois. No, the measure — which will spend $286.45 billion in six years on highways, rail and bus service, and bike 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.

Transportation bills have long had a penchant for clever names. 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. (We’ll get to LU presently.)

As for coherent national policy, well, this bill takes a different approach. Call it the return of the hodgepodge.

The new law endorses coherent policy, as its predecessors did. But it also 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," 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. o Oregon will get $2.88 million for walking and biking paths in the Delta Ponds area in Eugene.
  • California will get $2.3 million for landscaping along the Ronald Reagan Freeway.
  • Steamboat Springs, Colo., will get $627,000 for buses.
  • And San Juan County, N.M., will get $800,000 to improve the road into Chaco Culture National Historic Park (HCN, 5/30/05: Revamped road to Chaco may be the park’s ruin).

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 it does make some substantive 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: He’ll have to file suit 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 the natural resource agencies (Park Service, Fish and Wildlife, Forest Service and their state counterparts) relatively less influence over the final decision. It gives more influence to the 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.

Oh, about LU? The biggest of the "earmarks" is about $300 million for a 13,500-foot-long bridge 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.

Talk about cute: Mrs. Don Young’s first name is Lu.

Jon Margolis writes about the doings in Washington, D.C., from a safe distance, in Vermont.

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