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The first round of bidding for next year’s $375 billion highway bill began this week, as a long parade of House Members began pitching their projects to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The committee has already received about 5,300 project requests from Members totalling more than $500 billion. That’s roughly 4,000 more requests than the panel got in the initial stages of the 1998 highway bill, which ended up costing $200 billion.

The pleading began at 10 a.m. Tuesday in a near-empty hearing room beneath a portrait of Transportation Chairman Don Young (R) in which the Alaskan stands before a sweeping mountain vista. Visible in the background are a boat, a bridge and a jumbo jet in midflight.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) kicked off the session, telling Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.), chairman of the subcommittee on highways, transit and pipelines, and Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), also a subcommittee member, why a portion of Chicago’s elevated train system needs $246 million worth of rehabilitation.

His cause will be aided by the fact that another Chicago-area lawmaker, Rep. Bill Lipinski (D), is the highways subcommittee’s ranking member.

“I look forward to working with you,” Petri said, drawing scattered laughter. “Mr. Lipinski will make sure of that.”

Next up was Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who wants $8 million to study the feasibility of building a tunnel to connect two freeways in the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles. “The fight over this freeway has gone on for over 30 years,” Schiff said.

“I hope your colleague Mr. Capuano won’t hold the Big Dig against us,” Schiff joked, referencing the Boston tunnel project that has gone billions of dollars over budget.

“My experience with the Big Dig has transformed me into a big believer in tunnels,” Capuano responded. “I think they’re wonderful things and I think every road should be in a tunnel.”

At this stage of the process, Members are employing a variety of strategies to get their projects funded. The support of a Transportation panel member helps (there are 75 to choose from), as might the aid of the right lobbyist. Capuano complimented Emanuel for bringing with him “the greatest lobbyist on the Hill,” Kathleen Glunz of the city of Chicago’s Washington liaison office.

Some lawmakers focus on one or two important projects, others ask for dozens. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) submitted requests for 19 items, while Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) gave written testimony for 22 projects.

The prices range from Rep. Peter Visclosky’s (D-Ind.) request for $182,000 to fix up downtown Fowler, Ind., to Rep. Lynn Woolsey’s (D-Calif.) plea for $113 million in seismic retrofitting for the Golden Gate Bridge.

“You try to figure out what you can get,” Capuano said. “If the committee says you can only get one project or two then it’s the individual Member’s decision what to push for.”

Some lawmakers tried the odd-couple approach, emphasizing that they’re working together with their home-state colleagues from across the aisle to support a project. Colorado Rep. Mark Udall (D) pointed out that two GOP members of his delegation, Reps. Bob Beauprez and Tom Tancredo, also supported his request for money to improve the Interstate 70 corridor.

“If you’ve got the three of us teaming up on something, it’s going to go places — at least in Colorado,” Udall said.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) stopped by to ask for $6.4 million to upgrade U.S. Route 460, which he called a key evacuation route for northern North Carolina and southern Virginia.

Next up was Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), who said that his request for money for a high-speed rail system had support statewide and he was just “the guy who was picked” to appear before the committee.

The Southern California Democratic tag team of Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman came in to pitch improvements on two freeways. Berman stressed that he knew he needed to keep his remarks about the projects short, as “there is an inverse relationship to the likelihood of my getting them.”

Past highway bills have been criticized as pork bonanzas, but Petri pointed out that this week’s hearings are open for all to see. “This is nothing that’s being done in the still of night,” he said.

Petri also discouraged viewing the individual projects as only benefiting local interests.

“The fact is that it’s a system,” said Petri. “Inefficiencies in different parts of the system raise the costs for everyone.”

The hearings went on through the afternoon Tuesday, resumed Wednesday and are scheduled to end today.

Asked about the rigors of wielding the gavel for four or five hours a day for three days, Petri said with a smile that he actually enjoyed the process. “It’s interesting,” he said.

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