Why does pork so often taste like asphalt?

Before the rubble had even settled after the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, the road-building lobby was already hard at work spinning creative tales to anyone who would listen about how investment in transit and alternative modes was to blame for thousands of bridges across America being structurally deficient. Not only is it patently absurd to claim that maintenance funds have been diverted for transit and people-powered transport, the subterfuge is designed to mask the real truth: State DOTs are so fixated on building new capacity—often to support poorly planned development—that they actually failed to spend more than a quarter of the Federal bridge funding allocated by Congress over the last decade, according to the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership.

Appearing on PBS after the collapse, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters lumped bike paths in with museums and lighthouses as examples of pork and waste in transportation spending. Peters and the editorialists at the Wall Street Journal would have us believe that bridges are falling because some small city in America built a bike lane or because some other community got an earmark for a commuter rail line. Not only are these projects a tiny share of the earmarks, they almost always come with substantial support from the home community. That certainly is true of some roads, but nearly every time you see a project that purely is about benefiting a tiny handful of special interests, it is a development-oriented road project. These “bridges to nowhere” are far more costly than any community’s bike lane to somewhere.

Witness this case in point: The Justice Department is investigating whether or not Alaska Congressman Don Young took money from a real estate developer in exchange for securing $10 million for a proposed Florida highway ramp that could potentially increase the value of that developer’s land. The local metropolitan planning organization didn’t ask for the money, and was completely surprised when they found out they were getting $10 million for a highway ramp they didn’t want or particularly need.

Our David Goldberg and STPP’s Anne Canby combined to write this editorial to the New York Times after the Times published a story in which transit was painted as the culprit:

To the editor:

Regarding the bridge collapse, the Times is to be commended for noting the states’ tendency to neglect the transportation systems that serve existing cities and towns in favor of building roads to support new development (“Bridge Collapse Revives Issue of Road Spending,” Aug. 7).

However, the story erred in allowing a longtime ideological opponent of public transportation to lay the blame on communities that are trying to relieve the burden on roads by building rail and other alternatives. It is true that a growing number of communities are looking to these options. However, none are taking a dime from highway maintenance funds, and most are voting themselves special taxes to build these systems. When was the last time you voted on a highway?

Meanwhile, the states left nearly half the available federal bridge repair funds on the table as recently as fiscal 2006. As a former state DOT head I can tell you why: Most are preoccupied with building new highways, and don’t have solid plans for maintaining what we have or for providing other travel options. Blaming transit for that is like blaming the Minnesota victims for driving on the bridge that failed them.

While more money for transportation infrastructure might assuage our infrastructure woes, what is definitely needed is better priorities resulting from a cohesive national vision for transportation to carry us through the next 50 years. The interstate system is complete, and earmarks, while disturbing, only represented a small portion of the entire transportation bill. Most of it was disbursed to states with no clear guidelines for spending—and new roads out on the edge of town tend to be more popular than fixing the old bridge downtown. Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution and Time’s Michael Grunwald both point to the fact that our transportation priorities are “adrift” and in need of a serious transformation, much like Toni Gold of the Project for Public Spaces wrote in the Hartford Courant a little over a year ago. [Featured in SGAA 39]