Report: 21st Century Transportation

Greasing the Wheels

The Crossroads of Campaign Money and Transportation Policy
Released by: U.S. PIRG Education Fund

In the wake of the Minnesota I-35 bridge collapse there was enormous public outcry and recognition of the need to repair our crumbling infrastructure. Americans expected public officials to respond to the tragedy with a large scale effort to address the nearly 73,000 structurally deficient bridges in this country. The findings in this report suggest that did not happen.

As Congress prepares a new multi-year, multibillion dollar transportation bill, we explored the intersection of money and politics and recent transportation funding decisions.

We analyzed two data sets and new information that shine light on the influence of campaign giving on transportation funding decisions at the state and federal level. First the report examines, on a state-by-state basis, how much money was contributed to both federal and state campaigns by highway interests, defined as those from the development, automobile, transportation, and construction sectors. Then, the report looks at the number and dollar amounts of transportation earmarks from the 2008 federal transportation appropriations bill that were funded in each state to highlight the priorities of members of Congress.

Key findings:

• In 2008 there were 704 earmarked “member projects,” in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, totaling more than a half a billion dollars in federal aid highway projects on the annual transportation appropriations bill.

• Members of Congress earmarked funds in the 2008 appropriations bill for just 74 bridge repair projects. Only slightly more than 10 percent of the highway funds allocated for “member projects” in that year’s appropriations bill went to bridge repair or restoration.1

• At the same time, in 2008, highway interests gave over 133 million dollars to candidates for both federal and state office.

The findings suggest that elected officials often overlook preventative maintenance projects, especially when new capacity projects are encouraged by campaign contributions.

Recommendations:

We recommend reform of current campaign finance policy in order to ensure that the public interest is protected and that transportation decisions are made based on the needs of the public rather than the priorities of big-dollar donors.

• Congress should move to a voluntary system of publicly financing our elections that is focused on incentivizing small dollar donors and would raise the voices of individuals, keep elections competitive, and reduce the special access and influence of large corporate donors.

• Congress should spend taxpayers' money more wisely by focusing transportation dollars on solving our nation's biggest problems. Federal transportation money should be spent only on projects that produce real results over the long haul - for example, by reducing our dependence on oil, curbing global warming pollution, alleviating congestion, improving safety, and supporting healthy, sustainable communities.

1 Excluding emergency relief funding that was appropriated for the 1-35W bridge after the collapse.

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