Monday, August 27, 2007

Leveraging earmarks 

Ben Muse should be required reading for those trying to understand how government money is allocated in transportation projects. Departing from a story on a particular earmarked traffic interchange in Florida, he includes an interview of Mary Peters, Secretary of Transportation. This is particularly telling:
The dirty little secret of earmarks is that they're not the true cost of the projects. In many, many cases it only partially funds a project. In most cases, and I certainly experienced this as a state administrator, we had to take more money out of the rest of our programs to supplement the earmark in order to build that project because the earmark was rarely, if ever, the total cost of the project.

What that did was usurp the other priorities, the priorities that were set by state departments of transportation and local governments that went out in the public process and established priorities based on trying to take care of the systems they had. And, instead, that whole process begins to get usurped by these earmarks. I would hazard to guess that maybe earmarks, at most, would give you about a third of the project costs, and that's on the high side. The fact is that the cost of earmarks is really understated in terms of what it really takes out of the program.
Of course the last transportation bill included the Bridge to Nowhere and overall 6400 earmarks that diverted 9% of $285 billion allocated in 2005. It is fair to say that earmark reform has been a failure of both parties (you need only a few minutes of Porkbusters to get that message loud and clear), but I think Peters agrees with Michael in his call for a thorough review of spending priorities. Peters says:
It's the time to start talking about not just how much money is spent, but how and where that money is being spent. Before someone makes the argument that there isn't enough money, we need to say, "How are we spending the money today? Are we getting the best return on investment for the decisions we're making and where are we spending money today?" And I think one could argue that some of the places that money is going, whether it's because of earmarks or the proliferation of new programs, is not necessarily the highest and best use of that money.

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