Highway Bill Sparks $14.9 Billion Lawmaker Dash for Pet Projects

  • Return of earmarking: where the money would go
  • Democrats ask for about $6.6 billion more than Republicans

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About three-quarters of House members are seeking a total of almost $14.9 billion for surface transportation ranging from electric bus grants to road expansion as Congress opens the door for earmarking money for pet projects after more than 15 years.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is reviewing more than 2,300 projects to ensure that all requests comply with the rules, committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said last week after the full list was made public.

Photographer: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images
Hybrid electric city buses are seen on Earth Day, April 22, 2021, in New York City.

“It’s not an easy process, but it is important because I strongly believe elected representatives—working with their communities—know the specific infrastructure needs of their district far better than most people in D.C.,” DeFazio said.

Congress shunned earmarks a decade ago after allegations of wasteful spending, such as a “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska. Proponents said earmarks give Congress a say in how federal dollars are spent and help build consensus for passing legislation. Lawmakers revived the practice this year with disclosure requirements.

Congressional leaders expect to get an infrastructure and surface transportation bill on the House floor before July 4. The committee has said each House member requesting projects would be expected to get about the same amount, between $15 million and $20 million, to earmark in the highway bill. Many members submitted more than that amount, with even individual projects well exceeding that cap.

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By the Numbers

Here’s a breakdown of some takeaways from the requests the House Transportation Committee released:

Total requested: House Democratic members requested projects totaling about $10.7 billion, while Republicans asked for roughly $4.1 billion worth of projects.

Who submitted: Of Democrats in the House, 97%, or 213 members, submitted projects for consideration, versus about half of the House’s Republicans, or 105 members.

Projects over cap: There were 56 individual projects over the estimated $20 million maximum that each member is expected to get for requests.

Median cost: Democrats requested projects with a median cost of $3 million, while Republicans asked for slightly more per project, with a median of $3.09 million.

States left out: Four states didn’t request any earmark money: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, each of which has a single Republican House member.

Top 10 projects: The largest 10 requests total $3.27 billion, about 22% of all the earmarks. Almost all of those projects relate to highway and road expansion and improvement.

Electrification, mobility: At least $99.5 million in requested projects are tied to electric bus infrastructure, and at least $88.9 million of the requested dollars would go toward sidewalk projects, based on an analysis of project descriptions.

Largest, smallest: Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) requested the largest amount: $945.6 million for a highway connector project. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) asked for the least amount for a single project: $23,408 for the Royal Lakes Road Rehabilitation.

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‘Skin in the Game’

The last highway bill authorization in 2015 didn’t have earmarks. Some say including them now could help garner more bipartisan support. The committee said projects won’t be dependent on whether members vote for the legislation.

“Although passing legislation is typically challenging, when you have earmarks I think it’s less challenging because members have skin in the game,” said Bill Shuster, former Republican chair of the committee and a current senior policy adviser with Squire Patton Boggs. Projects in a district are important to constituents, so members are “typically going to be more supportive of a bill, even though a bill may have some stuff in it they don’t like,” he said.

The 2005 surface transportation authorization bill was one of the previous major bills with earmarks, and was criticized for a $14.8 billion price tag and some of the particular projects that were included in the 5,091 high-priority highway earmarks.

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Some of the criticism of past earmark legislation stemmed from how funding was distributed: congressional leaders decided the amount of funding given, and money wasn’t typically available in equal portions to all members of Congress, a Congressional Research Service report said.

Shuster said members should be transparent after such a long hiatus. “They need to cross all those T’s and dot those I’s because these earmarks are going to be scrutinized like they’ve never been,” he said.

This Congress, each member had to submit documentation with their requests, including letters of support from the state or local department of transportation, a description of the project phase, status of environmental review, and certification that the member and their family don’t have a financial interest in the project.

In submission guidance, the committee also asked members to pick projects that would advance the legislation’s goals. These include a safer transportation network, increased access to multi-modal or various types of transportation systems, reduced carbon pollution, support for underserved communities, and repairs for infrastructure.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at lbyington@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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