Highway Bill Brimming With ’Earmark’ Projects

Mon August 22, 2005 - National Edition
Pete Sigmund

The new $286.4-billion six-year transportation bill includes a record 6,371 special “earmark” projects inserted by congressmen apart from the usual state planning process.

Approximately 8 percent ($24 billion) of the funding in the bill is for a wide and interesting array of such projects.

By comparison, the last transportation bill (the TEA-21 Transportation Equity Act), passed in 1998, contained 1,850 such projects, the 1991 bill contained 538, the 1987 act had a meager 152 and the 1982 act contained only 10.

Alaska, whose representative, Don Young, R, is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, received the third largest earmark funding, including $223 million for a bridge (almost as long as the Golden Gate Bridge) between Gravina Island (population 50) and Ketchikan (8,002 people), and $231 million for the Knik Arm Bridge (nicknamed “Don Young’s Way”) between Anchorage and an undeveloped area.

(Alaska received $1,501 per person in earmarked money. The national per capita average for the 49 other states is $83.)

As states rush to get priority highways and bridges under construction, they must now scrutinize the additional work that they never requested — and which sometimes cause some confusion.

The earmarked projects include a wide range of work. Though often criticized as “pork” gaining votes in home districts, they also frequently meet many public needs, including high-priority (and sometimes highly advanced) highway, bridge, tunnel and transit projects.

There also are waterfront walkways, improvements around museums, expanded ferry services, bicycle paths, steps towards new roadways incorporating the latest technology — everything from truck-only lanes to automated highways for computer-driven cars — and many other special projects.

Which Tunnel?

One of the most interesting (and somewhat confusing) earmarks is $100 million allocated to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to design and engineer a new freight tunnel under New York Harbor from Jersey City, NJ, to Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, NY.

The tunnel, projected to start in 2009, would cost $4.8 billion to $7.4 billion, depending on its width.

It may not be built for a while, if ever.

“There are several major transportation projects in the region, including the Cross-Harbor Tunnel, which are worthwhile and deserve study,” Pasquale DiFulco, a spokesperson of the port authority in Manhattan, told Construction Equipment Guide (CEG). “However, we have not committed to the Cross-Harbor. The governors of both New York and New Jersey have clearly indicated their priorities to us and these are the Access to the Region’s Core [ARC] project and a rail link to JFK Airport.”

ARC, favored by New Jersey Acting Gov. Richard J. Codey, would be a far-different tunnel, bringing New Jersey Transit passenger trains under the Hudson River, and creating additional access to the Farley Station (formerly Penn Station) area in midtown.

The airport proposal, backed by New York Gov. George E. Pataki, would tunnel under the East River to provide “one seat” rail service connecting Lower Manhattan with Kennedy International Airport.

DiFulco said the $100 million could not be used without approval from the Port Authority’s board of commissioners. Rep. Jerrold L. Nadler, D-NY, obtained the federal grant without agreement of agency to build it.

Though it would improve the movement of goods throughout the region, the tunnel is opposed by New York City’s Economic Development Corp., which said it would adversely affect many neighborhoods. Trains would continue on from Bay Ridge to Queens, which critics said would become “the truck capital of North America.”

New Jersey legislators, meanwhile, obtained $2.5 million authorizing the state and New Jersey Transit to continue a study of the proposed ARC tunnel, and also authorized money for tunnel design.

“This is big for our state because the feds gave locals authorization [funds] on the tunnel,” said Brendan Gill, a spokesperson of the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) in Trenton. He said most of the funding for the $6-billion project, if the project is approved, would be through the Federal Transit Administration.

States Have Some Qualms

Many states are going over their earmarks with fine-tooth combs.

“We have 376 earmarks totaling over $621 million,” said Rich Kirkpatrick, a spokesperson of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) in Harrisburg, PA. “They’re all over the lot. We’re analyzing them to see whether they’re in our 12-year [highway] program and what the next steps in the process would be. We work with the metropolitan planning and rural planning organizations on deciding priorities and these earmarks have to be integrated into that.”

The earmarks don’t usually come as a complete surprise, said a Virginia DOT (VDOT) bridge engineer, who did not wish to be identified.

“Usually, the congressman’s office has contacted us in advance regarding costs and stuff,” he said. “Most of the time we sort of have an idea of what our state is going after.”

“We have not identified that we can do the projects that were listed in the federal bill,” said Linda South, a spokesperson of VDOT in Richmond, VA. “Our staff is currently examining that bill and evaluating those projects that were listed in it. In some cases, the matching funding might be an issue. A lot of different factors are involved.”

Many New York City Projects

The $100 million toward the freight tunnel is just one of dozens of special appropriations for New York City. These include $15 million to begin ferry service (three ferries) between the Rockaways and Lower Manhattan, $1 million for a greenway along the waterfront between East River Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, $3 million for improvements around the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and $3 million for improvements around the New York Public Library.

New Jersey Earmarks Total $549 Million

New Jersey is “still evaluating our high-priority projects, still trying to work our numbers internally,” said Gill. He said his state received approximately $549 million in earmarked projects out of a total authorization of approximately $8 billion over five years.

Gill said the following earmarks are especially significant: Further funding for the Route 39 project, which is a gateway to the Holland Tunnel, the $2.5-million Trans-Hudson Tunnel “ARC” study, $10 million for the Route 18 corridor in New Brunswick, and $29 million for an I-295, I-76, and State Highway 42 interchange near Camden, NJ.

New Jersey also obtained substantial funding for such projects as a waterfront walkway along North Sinatra Drive in Hoboken ($9.6 million), a train station in Trenton ($24.8 million), an Atlantic City jitney shuttle fleet ($3 million), preservation of New Jersey Underground Railroad sites ($356,000), and a new Route 49 bridge over the Cohansey River in Bridgeton ($3.9 million towards the full cost of $13.5 million).

Experimental Study in Virginia

A total of $141.5 million is earmarked for advanced studies and development on I-81, the 325-mi. long north-south western corridor in Virginia extending from the border with Tennessee and North Carolina to the West Virginia border. This is partial funding for a project whose cost, according to private developers, would be $700 million.

The studies are related to a private proposal to widen the highway for toll lanes, which would be used exclusively by trucks.

“There is interest at the national level in providing freight and commuter route movement in the same corridor,” said Laura Bullock, a spokesperson of VDOT on this big project. “Our congressional folks included funding for what looks like possible separation of cars and trucks. How that would work out I don’t know.”

Would an extra lane be involved?

“That hasn’t been determined,” said Bullock. “What we first have to complete is an experimental study, under the National Environmental Policy Act, to determine what is the current traffic level, and what the future traffic level will be in the year 2035. Results will help determine whether we will need one more lane, two more lanes, or 15 lanes in each direction. They will also determine how much of that traffic is trucks, and how much is other vehicle traffic. Solutions may, or may not, include separate roadways for trucks. It’s too early to say how that money should, or would, be used. I think the creativity and flexibility, which the bill allows, is very good.”

Bullock said the bill allots $100 million for “construction of dedicated truck lanes on additional capacity on Interstate 81” in the category of “projects of national and regional significance.” An additional $38 million is for managing freight movement and for safety improvements.

“I don’t know exactly what that all means,” she added. “Here in Virginia we don’t know. When you have a federal transportation bill, the agency that is responsible for looking at it real closely and hammering out the details is the Federal Highway Administration.”

Bullock said VDOT is examining a proposal for truck-separated lanes that was made by STAR Solutions, a consortium of construction firms, which includes Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR).

“No decisions have been made,” she added.

Another big earmark in Virginia is $39.4 million that would be available for construction of a third bridge-tunnel across the James River in the Hampton Roads/Tidewater area.

Typical other projects in the Old Dominion state: $6 million for the “Smart Road” Intelligent Transportation System project in Blacksburg, and $5.4 million for National Park Service transportation improvements in Historic Jamestown.

Signed Into Law in Illinois

President Bush signed the new six-year highway and mass transit bill into law on Aug. 10 at a ceremony at the Caterpillar Inc.’s wheel loaders and excavators Division facility in Montgomery, IL, near Chicago. The plant is in the home district of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R- IL.

According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-profit “budget watchdog” group in Washington, D.C., Illinois received the second highest number of earmarks (330) in the bill, including $207 million for a Prairie Parkway connector joining two major highways outside Chicago. It said these projects are valued at $1.334 billion, the second highest value.

The group said California received the most earmarks (546 valued at $2.649 billion). Alaska was third highest (120 projects valued at $1.001 billion). New York was fourth highest (494 projects worth more than $990 million).

The new law is called the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act — A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). CEG