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How to pull Congress away from pork

The good news: There's a system in place to do it.

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A consensus is emerging to include billions of dollars for transportation projects in an economic stimulus plan to be taken up shortly after the presidential election.

Infrastructure investments may well be the best short-term stimulus available to policymakers. Supporters tout the two-for-one benefits of fixing crumbling highways and bridges while pumping money and jobs into a sagging economy. And there's no outsourcing a road crew.

However, standing between your state highway department and all those federal infrastructure dollars is something far more dysfunctional than the local traffic grid – Congress's earmark-riddled transportation funding process.

This reality raises the question whether, as we navigate the minefield of economic recovery, we can afford to take directions from the people that gave us the "Bridge to Nowhere"? Assuming not, we have an opportunity in debating the terms of a stimulus bill to take a small step back toward accountable governance and find a silver lining to the dark economic cloud hanging over us.

There was a time when relying on the federal blueprint for transportation funding would have made a lot more sense. In 1991, 538 earmarked projects were included in the highway reauthorization bill, an average of one project for each member of Congress.

Fourteen years later, Congress passed the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) – the bloated, self-indulgent title of which was sadly well-suited to its contents.

In this masterpiece of pork, Congress saw fit to include 6,371 earmarks, a staggering 12 projects per member, that ate up $24.2 billion of the $287 billion in authorized funding and doubled the percentage of transportation dollars set aside for so-called "high priority projects."

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