Stop the Secret Porkfest

Heading home for the holidays, lawmakers will surely mull over the heated debate for an auto industry bailout. Regardless of how they feel about the outcome, at least it was discussed in broad daylight. Executives testified twice, submitted plans showing how they would commit to fuel savings, and agreed to other conditions such as a “car czar” to oversee their use of federal monies. The public was even polled about their position on a bailout.

Meanwhile, Congress has been working on the infrastructure component of an economic recovery package, and the process couldn’t be more different. State transportation departments – which not so long ago were merely highway agencies – have assembled lists that according the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the lobbying arm of state transportation departments, add up to about $64 billion. These wish lists – it is Christmas, after all – are being assembled into legislation.

However, in spite of the fact that the amount demanded is more than four times the size of the auto bailout package, the lists are not available to the public. Such secrecy may accelerate the legislative process, but history shows that legislating is best done in the public eye. These are public dollars, after all. We should have the opportunity to analyze and critique the lists to ensure they provide public benefits, as opposed to simply fulfilling the wishes of state government bureaucrats.

Equally disturbing is the lack of screening based on national objectives. What about concerns about oil dependence? And global warming pollution? And what about growing demand for public transit? This year we witnessed  a remarkable trend, with driving down for 11 months straight and public transit ridership growing at record rates (6.5% in the third quarter alone). Transit clearly needs a bigger share, yet the overriding objective unfortunately appears to be “shovel-ready."

This is a recipe for bad policy and buyer’s remorse, with taxpayers funding the burden. Take, for example, the Missouri DOT’s wish list, one of the few I have been able to acquire. It includes an eye-popping $800 million worth of projects. More than 95 percent are highway projects. This clearly doesn’t adequately consider St. Louis or Kansas City, population centers that surely need more than just highways. Arizona DOT’s list isn’t much better, with less than ten percent of money going to public transportation.

The bottom line is that secretive legislating does not serve our nation. President-elect Obama has made clear that financing the economic recovery must be done carefully, with an eye to multiple national objectives (such as his stated commitment to save more than 3.5 million barrels a day of oil in 10 years). He is, of course, absolutely right. Congress should heed his words by unveiling proposed lists of projects to be funded, soliciting project lists from cities as well as states, adopting criteria such as energy efficiency and pollution reduction for financing projects, and tracking and overseeing spending pursuant to the legislation so we know if it has the desired effects.

Working to make rational policy will yield a package that provides a shot in the arm while setting the nation on a path to recovery while avoiding embarrassing boondoggles (like the infamous bridge to nowhere) that exacerbate our oil addiction and global warming challenges.