Congratulations, Congress. You’ve managed to pass a water resource bill without any (official) earmarks. Now, move on and start fixing the next most pernicious problem: parochialism (i.e., Congress meddling in and spending on activities that are of purely of state or local concern).
Congress most exceptionally failed to root out parochialism in the recently passed Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), permitting the Army Corps of Engineers to continue spending federal taxpayer dollars on local activities such as beach nourishment, recreational management, hydropower, municipal water supply, and wastewater projects.
Next up in transportation is the reauthorization of Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), which contains several major federal surface transportation programs. Like WRRDA, MAP-21 is teeming with parochial activities that have no place in a program that was supposed to be dedicated to the construction of interstate highway system roads and bridges—a project that was largely complete by the 1980s, actually.
Some of the activities in MAP-21—such as the historic-style lamp posts, bicycle paths, and landscaping funded by the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP)—obviously are of local concern. For others, such as the myriad federal urban mass transit programs, it is not so obvious—but only because successful lobbying and self-indulgent publicity by highly mobilized transit interest groups have made transit seem like a federal responsibility. In fact, transit commuting is concentrated in just six cities—Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Yet lawmakers have been all too obliging to bring federal gas tax dollars home for transit projects, even if it means subjecting local residents to tax hikes to subsidize the transit systems in perpetuity.
The TAP and transit programs are just a few of the parochial activities that Congress should phase out or outright eliminate in any new reauthorization of federal surface transportation programs. This is not to say that these activities are inherently worthless: They are not federal responsibilities and produce little if any national (aggregate) benefit. Further, Congress is unapologetically cheating motorists, truckers, and bus operators, who pay federal gas and diesel taxes only to see up to one-third of that money diverted to activities that do not benefit them. Transit riders don’t pay a dime into the Highway Trust Fund that pays their way, and historic-style lamp posts most certainly do not.
Ending federal programs or funding eligibilities is never an easy lift. But Congress is supposed to govern, and one way it does that is through how it spends federal dollars. In the highway bill reauthorization, Congress should eliminate non-federal activities and either redeploy the money to interstate highway system programs or turn over the taxing authority for that amount to the states to manage.