WASHINGTON – A half century ago, when President Eisenhower proposed the first national highway bill, there were two projects singled out for funding. Last week, when Congress passed the latest multiyear bill, there were, by one estimate, 6,371 of these special projects, a record that some say politicians should be ashamed of.
The projects in the six-year, $286.4 billion highway and mass transit bill range from $200,000 for a deer avoidance system in Weedsport, N.Y., to $330 million for a highway in Bakersfield., Calif.
For the beneficiaries, almost every member of Congress, they bring jobs and better quality lives to their communities and states. To critics, they are pork barrel spending at its worst.
"Egregious and remarkable," exclaimed Sen. John McCain (search), R-Ariz., about the estimated $24 billion in the bill set aside for highways, bus stops, parking lots and bike trails requested by lawmakers.
McCain, one of only four senators to oppose the bill, listed several dozen "interesting" projects, including $480,000 to rehabilitate a historic warehouse on the Erie Canal and $3 million for dust control mitigation on Arkansas rural roads.
His favorite, he said, was $2.3 million for landscaping on the Ronald Reagan Freeway in California. "I wonder what Ronald Reagan would say."
Reagan, in fact, vetoed a highway bill over what he said were spending excesses, only to be overridden by Congress. Meanwhile, according to a Cato Institute analysis, special projects or "earmarks" numbered 10 in 1982, 152 in 1987, 538 in 1991 and 1,850 in 1998. The 1998 highway act set aside some $9 billion for earmarks, well under half the newest plan.
"This bill will be known as the most earmarked transportation bill in the history of our nation," said Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy for Taxpayers for Common Sense, which tracks such projects in congressional legislation.
President Bush also threatened to veto the measure over spending issues, and it took nearly two years for Congress to reach a compromise that the White House would accept.
Deciding how much will go to earmarks, however, is very much up to Congress, and few lawmakers are willing to turn down a new road or bridge in their district.
"Nothing beats a ribbon-cutting ceremony on a new piece of pavement," said Peter Sepp, spokesman for National Taxpayers Union. "Road projects are regarded as a kind of government jobs program that Republicans can safely embrace."
Lawmakers were sending out press releases bragging of their accomplishments even before the bill was passed, said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. "It's a symbol of why everything else is out of control, not just highways."
The biggest beneficiaries tend to be the lawmakers with the biggest clout.
Alaska, the third-least populated state, got the fourth most in earmarks, $941 million, thanks largely to the work of its lone representative, Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young. That included $231 million for a bridge near Anchorage to be named "Don Young's Way" in honor of the Republican.
Meanwhile, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., nailed down $630 million, including $330 million for the Centennial Corridor Loop in Bakersfield, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The highway bill is one area where the minority Democrats aren't forgotten. Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, top Democrat on the Transportation Committee, listed 57 projects totaling $121 million he won for his district, from $8 million for a highway project to $560,000 for the Paul Bunyon State Trail.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said in a press release that he had "used his seniority" on the Transportation Committee to gain $16 million for the eponymous Nick J. Rahall II Appalachian Transportation Institute at Marshall University.
Not every lawmaker came seeking gifts. Two conservative Republicans from Arizona, Jeff Flake and John Shadegg, wrote Young asking that the $14 million the committee was allotting to each House member for earmarks be sent instead to the state transportation department.
Flake's office said that in the end he didn't take any projects, and Flake and Shadegg were two of only eight House members to vote against the bill.