Monday, October 4, 2010

The Triumph of Pork over Purpose [Needs to Be Reversed]

The article with the "spot on" title Pork over Purpose was published on a most unfortunate date (the day before 9/11/2001) in a most unlikely publication, The Blueprint of the Democratic Leadership Council. The DLC provides perspective and advice to elected Democrats.

The Triumph of Pork over Purpose was written by David Luberoff of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Notable highlights of the article include the following.

There is no national purpose driving federal highway and transit funding programs. Instead, a variety of special interests -- from contractors and unions to environmentalists and urbanists -- have come to view the national highway and transit program as an opportunity. [Interestingly most environmentalists and urbanists are strongly against the proposed elevated rail for Honolulu, so the project is politician and union driven.]

Earmarked funding for an increasing number of projects: There were only a handful of earmarks in the 1982 act reauthorizing highway and transit laws, but the 1987 measure contained funding for about 150 specific projects --one of the rationales President Reagan cited in his unsuccessful veto of that law. In contrast, no one blinked an eye when ISTEA earmarked money for more than 500 highway and transit projects or when TEA-21 included more than 1,800 earmarks. [Earmarks is one manifestation of pork over purpose. But there are several other ways to promote pork. For example one can declare carbon emissions an enemy and start throwing money at anything that promises carbon emissions reductions. Then "green" causes a lot of real red. The huge deficits of Spain and California prove this.]

The prospect of significant federal funding drives states and localities to build projects that they never would undertake if they had to fund even a significant portion of the costs themselves. For example, the funding strategy for virtually every major rail transit project built in the last three decades -- from Los Angeles' Red Line to Seattle's current troubled project -- has been predicated on securing significant federal funding for those projects because local officials knew that local voters would never have approved local taxes needed to fully fund those projects. [It's worth repeating that 80% to 90% of the funding for H-1, H-2 and H-3 freeways came from FHWA, but only about 25% of the funding for rail may come from the FTA.]

The pressure for special projects and programs creates a process that is politically compelling but one that also is far from economically efficient. And that means that we're not spending the money we have in ways likely to produce significant positive payoffs by either making the economy more efficient or improving the quality of many people's lives. [This is another spot on statement: Infrastructure is paid by taxes. If the wrong infrastructure is built, then taxes are simply wasted.]

The four highlights above --that are worth about 30 Billion Dollars in Hawaii and over One Trillion Dollars in the U.S. as a whole-- explain why I am motivated to seek high elected office with power over infrastructure decisions.