Transportation bill getting $1B for new bridges

Senate Democrats, responding to the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, moved on Monday to add $1 billion for bridge maintenance and repair to the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development spending bill on the floor this week.

That would amount to a 20 percent increase, said an Appropriations Committee spokesman, and bring the bill’s total spending dedicated to bridges to around $6 billion.

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Lobbyists who represent local and state governments, a growing business on K Street, hope it’s just a start. A massive influx of federal money is needed, they say, to shore up a neglected national infrastructure that includes everything from locks and dams to highways and rail lines.

Major transportation policy debates typically occur in the massive reauthorization bills that Congress tackles every five years or so.

But the bridge collapse has already led to the introduction of several measures that would bring more federal resources to bear, including a proposal for a bridge-only fund financed by a five-cent gas tax increase offered by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.).

The collapse has “focused more public attention on the state of our infrastructure,” said Jack Basso, the director of management and business development for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

“Where we go from here is hard to know,” Basso said. His group has called for a gas tax increase of seven cents to pay for an expected shortfall in highway spending accounts.

A variety of trade groups have testified in favor of a gas tax increase. Business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are mounting campaigns to convince Congress to spend more on infrastructure.

Howard Marlowe, who founded Marlowe & Company, a 14-person firm that specializes in representing local governments in Washington, backs the Oberstar bill but says it is essentially a Band-Aid measure.

“You see it in every community — no matter how rich or how poor, their infrastructure needs are overwhelming,” Marlowe said. “We have to examine the state of our transportation infrastructure, the size of the problem and how we pay for it.”

“There is a real need for additional federal resources,” agreed Roger Gwinn, executive director of the Ferguson Group, which represents 110 public agencies in 27 states.

“This is a long-standing issue,” he said

As they work to convince Congress to increase its commitment to infrastructure repair, lobbyists may have to overcome an unusual obstacle: their own success in securing earmarks for clients.

The most common counterargument to the gas tax increase is that Congress should first change how it distributes the money it already has.

Steve Ellis, vice president for programs at Taxpayers for Common Sense, noted the 2005 highway reauthorization bill included more than 6,000 earmarks totaling $24 billion.

Ellis called that bill a “wish list” that distributed money on a “political formula rather than on basis of merit.”

“Clearly, there is a lot of room for improvement,” Ellis said. His comments echo what the White House has said in response to calls for a gas tax increase.

The increase in earmarks in bills like the highway bill followed a sharp increase in the number of lobbyists who represent local governments.

Once the province of a few niche firms, major firms now typically have a transportation and infrastructure practice that represents public clients.

A Center for Public Integrity report in 2005 noted that spending by local governments on Washington-based lobbyists doubled from 1998 to 2004.

Members of Congress sometimes resent these contracts on the logic that they make it look as if the members aren’t doing their jobs. But these relationships with K Street often result in targeted spending projects for local governments that pay far more compared to what it cost to hire the firm.

Scandals involving Jack Abramoff, former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) and others, however, have turned “earmark” into a dirty word.

Democratic leaders, pushed by freshman legislators who campaigned on cleaning up government, have implemented new rules that require members to own up to their earmark requests as a way to bring an added measure of transparency to the process.

The practice of earmarking has hardly stopped, however. Ellis’s group counts 827 earmarks, totaling $2.5 billion, in the fiscal 2008 Senate transportation spending measure.

Lobbyists complain that the coverage of the “Bridge to Nowhere,” the infamous span Alaska members pushed in the 2005 highway bill, was over-hyped, and that the vast majority of earmarks have merit.

But the price of an increase in federal spending may be less control in how that money is distributed.

Oberstar’s measure, for example, prohibits earmarks. If that can be done for the bridge bill, Ellis wondered, why not other spending measures?