Ever since I broke into this business, it has been stuck in my teeth, sometimes even lodged between my gums and the walls of my mouth. It has left me tongue-tied.
Every time I am about to stare down the crosshairs of an argument about highway and bridge funding with someone outside of the yellow lines, two words leave me for dead in a ditch: pork-barrel projects.
I can thank Don Young for this verbal paralysis. His cherry-pickin’ funding of the “Bridge to Nowhere” project has me looking like a mama’s boy on the playground when it comes time for a fight.
Of course, Young is not the only one who has dressed this weak argument. After all, SAFETEA-LU is a fashion plate for public ridicule with a humiliating 6,300 earmarked projects.
So when the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission came out with a solid ice pack for this embarrassing swelling, I thought I finally had something to pull me out of this coffin corner. For those who do not know, the commission recommended the formation of the National Surface Transportation Commission (NASTRAC) to oversee development of a national strategic plan for transportation investment and to recommend appropriate revenue adjustments to Congress to implement the plan. Ten members, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, would oil NASTRAC as it cranked out funding recommendations to Congress, which would have to come up with a two-thirds majority rejection in both houses to kill any move.
According to the commission, NASTRAC would be responsible for carrying out the following:
- Oversight of the U.S. DOT-led process by which performance standards would be set on a national basis for reducing traffic congestion, improving safety, etc. The standards would be incorporated into federal grants;
- Oversight of the U.S. DOT-led process to adopt standards for demonstrating that only economically justified projects that accomplish plan objectives would be eligible for federal funding;
- Approval of the U.S. DOT-led effort to integrate the various programmatic plans for asset management, freight movement and other functions into a national strategic plan for surface transportation;
- Recommendation to Congress of the user-fee rates and adjustments necessary to fund the federal share of the national strategic plan;
- Authority to adjust the federal share for particular activities as an incentive, rewarding states and municipalities that demonstrate creativity and innovation; and
- Adoption of maintenance-of-effort requirements. Maintenance-of-effort checks would be built into the grants to mitigate the tendency to substitute federal funds for state and local resources.
The commission admits NASTRAC is the most “far-reaching” of ideas for future funding, but I think the concept certainly arms the industry with a left hook that can cover any canvas of debate. However, I do have a suggestion that could flatten the face of discontent. Filling NASTRAC with a table full of politicians does not even take a Q-Tip to the earmark threat. Why not appoint engineers, professors and other elite members of our industry who do not have walking shoes fitted for the steps of Capitol Hill? I think it is an answer worth considering. It sure would beat the question, “What happened to your face?”