Senate set aside $1 billion for worn spans -- and $2. 5 billion for "earmarks."
WASHINGTON - Bridges are aging and rusting all over the country, but if Congress has its way, Las Vegas will get a history museum out of the Senate-approved transportation and housing bill soon headed to President Bush.
North Dakota will get $450,000 for its Peace Garden on the Canadian border, while Montana will see funding for a minor-league baseball stadium in Billings. So too will Minnesota get $250,000 in the House version -- for bike trails.
The U.S. Senate bill does contain an extra $1 billion for bridge repair. But the amount set aside for pet transportation and community projects would be more than double that: In all, 843 new congressional "earmarks" totaling $2.5 billion.
The House version of the bill, passed before the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis on Aug. 1, is nearly as fatty, with more than 1,400 earmarks worth nearly $2.2 billion.
If current trends continue, the feast of pork-barrel spending is likely to grow, the result of Republican and Democratic lawmakers across the country who grab transportation funds for things like local highway interchanges -- and a California Mule and Packers Museum in Bishop, population 3,575.
Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a longtime critic of earmarks, said that such spending is particularly galling in light of the heightened awareness of the nation's crumbling bridgework.
"The bridge in Minnesota didn't fail as much as Congress failed," Coburn said. "We failed to direct dollars where they were needed most because this body is obsessed with parochial pork-barrel politics." A newly released government study identified 8,056 earmarks worth $8.5 billion last year, a figure that represents a record 13.5 percent of U.S. Transportation Department's spending plan.
Transportation analysts expect a similar level of earmark spending this year, counting projects already approved in a five-year highway bill passed in 2005.
Most of the earmarked funds go to transportation projects that spark little controversy. The Senate bill that passed Wednesday includes the remaining balance of the $250 million authorized by Congress this summer to replace the fallen 35W bridge.
U.S. Sens. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., also secured $65 million for the Northstar Corridor Rail project between Big Lake and Minneapolis and $35 million for the Central Corridor Light Rail line between Minneapolis and St. Paul.
But the U.S. Transportation Department inspector general report found that earmarks -- defined as congressional directives written into law for specific projects -- often squeeze out funding for more worthy endeavors.
"Many earmarked projects considered by [transportation] agencies as low priority are being funded over higher priority, non-earmarked projects," the inspector general concluded. The White House has already threatened a veto of the swollen bill, although it has offered assurances that funding for 35W will be secured.
Coburn, who requested the study, tried unsuccessfully this week to pass a moratorium on earmarks until all of the nation's deficient bridges are repaired. His measure failed 82-14. Klobuchar and Coleman were among those who voted against the Coburn bill.
Coburn specifically targeted spending on bike paths, such as the Cambridge-Isanti Bike/Walk Trail in Minnesota, which got $250,000 in the House transportation spending bill.
House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., who inserted the bike trail earmark, defended it as an economic development tool. "Eliminating important projects that promote tourism and recreational travel will not make up for years of underinvestment in our nation's infrastructure," he said. "It will just slow down other segments of the economy."
While critics seize on money for bike trails and other special projects, Oberstar noted that 87 percent of transportation earmarks go to roads, bridges and tunnels, generally not considered pork-barrel spending.
Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., who wrested $50,000 for the National Mule and Packers Museum in the western frontier town of Bishop, was equally unapologetic.
"One thing we forget is the people in Bishop pay taxes," he said, adding "they have gotten very little back from the federal government."