News

^WASHINGTON -- Six weeks after a fatal Minneapolis bridge collapse prompted criticism of federal spending priorities, the Senate approved a transportation and housing bill Wednesday containing at least $2 billion for pet projects that include a North Dakota peace garden, a Montana baseball stadium and a Las Vegas history museum.

That's not the half of it.

Total spending on transportation "earmarks" next year is likely to be about $8 billion, when legislative projects from a previously approved, five-year highway bill are factored in. A newly released report by the Department of Transportation's inspector general identified 8,056 earmarks totaling $8.5 billion in the fiscal year that ended in October, or 13.5% of the Transportation Department's $63 billion spending plan.^

The inspector general's report found that the vast majority of earmarks -- project-specific spending instructions written into bills, usually by lawmakers -- were not evaluated on their merits, and that many "low-priority" earmarks often squeezed out more important projects.

The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, had to delay updating high-priority air-traffic control towers in favor of lower priority facilities requested by legislators, the inspector general found.

The report -- requested by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a vocal critic of earmarks -- does not name the airports.

After the Minneapolis bridge collapse last month, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others pointed out that Congress for years failed to fund repairs on scores of "structurally deficient" bridges even as lawmakers earmarked money for projects such as the "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska.

Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has proposed a temporary 5-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase that he said would raise $25 billion over three years to help reduce the backlog of critical bridge repairs. Among Oberstar's earmarks in the House transportation bill is $250,000 for a bike trail in his district, which he has defended as legitimate. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington state Democrat who chairs the subcommittee that drafted the $106 billion transportation and housing bill, defended the bill and pointed to insertion this week of an additional $1 billion for bridge repairs.

Coburn's staff identified 500 earmarks in the bill, totaling $2 billion, that were publicly disclosed under new rules designed to shed some light on the practice.

"No one in America seriously believes that bike paths, peace gardens and baseball stadiums are more important national priorities than bridge and road repairs," Coburn said.

Coburn and a handful of other lawmakers routinely offer proposals to strip bills of earmarks, only to see colleagues crush them with bipartisan efficiency.

On Tuesday, Coburn offered an amendment prohibiting spending on earmarks until every structurally deficient bridge was fixed. It lost, 82 to 14.

The bill, which President Bush has threatened to veto, must now be reconciled with the House-approved version. That measure contains, among other earmarks, money for a California mule and packer museum.


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