House Republican Cuts Bypass Real Waste and Bash Merit-Based, Fuel-Saving Programs

Last week I wrote about a proposal from extremists in the House targeting a program with a proven track record of effectiveness. Now a version of that proposal has been folded into a larger one from House Republican budget leaders called a "Continuing Resolution,"  which is basically the bid from one Party in one chamber of Congress for budgeting for this fiscal year and next. It is filled with ill-conceived cuts to various programs as colleagues are writing about on the pages of Switchboard.

I want to focus on transportation, where the cleaver has been wielded in stunningly dumb fashion. Most of the money in this program is in the highway and bridge categories, which for a variety of reasons (e.g., the fact that shiny new projects are more fun to talk about, and cut ribbons in front of, than badly needed repair or maintenance jobs) have delivered some real boondoggles such as the infamous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska.

However, more than 90 percent of the cuts are aimed elsewhere. This is a shame, since the portion that is unscathed is not only huge, it includes programs where money is simple-mindedly shoveled out by formula to state government bureaucracies with no regard to potential return on investments, performance of investments, or merit.

So what would get cut instead? Grants under the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program. These grants have been made using clear criteria, and have been successful at promoting competition between regions and states for federal taxpayer money as Transportation for America has noted. They are also oversubscribed, with thousands of applications submitted. So the program makes investments based on likely performance outcomes and it spurs bracing competition between government agencies at the state and local levels. If we want government to be more effective, if we want to avoid big, wasteful project mistakes, then this program design should copied, not chopped.

Intercity rail gets axed as well. This is clearly meant as a poke in the President's, and the Transportation Secretary's, eyes. Both have clearly set out to build a new network of intercity rail, with the intention of moving to high-speed rail links as soon as possible. This is, much like the Interstate Highway System, a long-term construction project. There may be debates over how to proceed, with for example Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) desiring to target investment on the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C. as densest and therefore highest-ridership-potential one in the nation. But few argue against the need for more intercity rail capacity, including some who do so on national security grounds and others on the grounds that we need a more integrated freight and passenger rail network. Slashing this funding would be myopic and harmful in the long run to the economy and our energy independence.

Tomorrow the President joins the debate. What can we expect from him? Hard to tell, although Streetsblog has provided a nice set of points to consider as we wait.

One thing's certain -- the House Republican budget-meisters have set a mighty low bar with their transportation proposal; it shouldn't be too hard to come up with something smarter and less wasteful.