Technical amendment pipes money to Alaska

Republican Rep. Don Young iced his reputation for pursuing Alaskan priorities when he set aside nearly $500 million in the recently enacted highway bill for the now-infamous “bridges to nowhere.”

But it turns out the lame-duck Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman knows the value of subtlety, too.

A narrowly crafted provision tucked into the “technical amendments” portion of the law’s transit title will give the Alaska Railroad tens of millions of dollars in subsidies largely intended to underwrite the costs of maintaining mass-transit routes in major cities, such as New York, Boston and Chicago.

Under a complex formula, rail systems are eligible for money for “fixed guideway modernization,” essentially track maintenance, based on the number of miles of their tracks laid in urbanized areas. But under the new highway law, the Alaska Railroad is eligible to receive money based on 60 percent of its total directional route miles, most of which are not in cities.

The seemingly innocuous technical amendment means big money for the Last Frontier State, underscoring Young’s deft and highly controversial ability to steer federal dollars toward the Arctic tundra.

Because a small portion of the track is laid in cities, Alaska received a pittance under the old formula. But the new provision would send $15 million to the Alaska Railroad for modernization in fiscal 2006 and more than $70 million over four years.

The amount increases because the pot of available subsidies gets bigger each year. It is difficult to strip subsidies from entities that already get them, and the provision could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in the next highway reauthorization.

So, unlike a one-time earmark for a bridge, the obscure policy change appears to be a gift that will keep on giving.

“Exactly,” said one House Republican on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“When it’s in, it’s in,” said Keith Ashdown, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington watchdog group. “You can kiss the money goodbye in future bills.”

Unlike easily highlighted earmarks, changes to intricate transit formulas are harder for rank-and-file lawmakers to track in massive authorization bills.

“There’s never any sunshine on these things until after you vote,” said a senior House Republican who was clearly frustrated with Young’s diversion of money to Alaska.

According to that lawmaker, goodies such as the Alaskan bridges factored prominently in Young’s losing his bid for the chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee to Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.). It is not clear that members of the Republican Steering Committee were even aware of the expensive “technical amendment” when they denied Young the Homeland Security gavel.

Young, who has been in the House since 1973, was far more ambitious in his original version of the legislation. Instead of basing the railroad’s eligibility on three-fifths of its miles, he based it on the entire stretch of track in his initial draft. While the enacted law gave a little less to the railroad than Young had hoped for, it was still too generous for some in Washington.

“It’s the same old story of another giveaway to the state that’s already on more welfare than anyone else,” Ashdown said.

Ultimately, the single provision is responsible for just a piece of Alaska’s increased take in transit money. But some see it as particularly egregious, both because it was masked as a “technical” amendment and because the Alaska Railroad’s passenger haul is minimal.

The route’s two biggest cities — Anchorage and Fairbanks — are 12 hours apart, making it an unlikely commute on the Denali Star. While big-city commuter-rail systems can carry hundreds of millions of passengers a year, the Alaska Railroad provides transportation for just half a million. In contrast, it hauled 8 million tons of freight in 2003, according to its website.

Despite the considerable wedge of federal pie on its plate, the Alaska Railroad, a major landholder in the state, with 18,000 acres available for lease, boasts that it receives no state subsidies.

Calls to committee aides were not returned before press time.