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CongressNow: Earmarks — Roadblock for Highway Bill?

Lawmakers will face a White House roadblock in passing the politically popular highway bill next year if Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wins the presidency.

Updating the federal surface transportation law is always an arduous task for Congress, with fights over how to fund road and railway projects. However, it would be even more difficult under a McCain presidency because of his long-standing opposition to earmarking dollars for Members’ pet projects.

“I’ll veto every single bill that comes across my desk and make the author of those pork-barrel projects [famous],” McCain said during a Republican presidential candidate debate last August.

Lawmakers have long looked to the highway bill to spur investment in their states and districts. The last surface transportation bill, enacted in 2005, provided $21.6 billion for more than 6,000 Member projects for building and refurbishing highways and bridges, rail and bus facilities, bike paths and recreational trails.

Although it took nearly two years for Congress to reach a compromise that the White House would accept, at the signing ceremony President Bush said the spending would help boost economic growth. McCain was one of a handful of Senators to vote against it.

During the his campaign, McCain has advertised his opposition to the $223 million “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, a project approved in the last highway bill and supported by his fellow Republicans. His running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, touted her opposition to earmarks such as the bridge shortly after she was tapped, but evidence later surfaced that her opposition has not always been consistent.

McCain also has blamed Congressional earmarking for the collapse of an interstate bridge in Minneapolis that killed 13 people in August 2007, arguing that too much money went to Member pet projects instead of basic safety and construction.

“If Congress fails to recover from its addiction to earmarks, then crumbling bridges, congested highways and crowded airports will continue much to the detriment of Americans,” McCain said.

Randle O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, said he appreciated that McCain and other members of the Arizona delegation did not demand earmarks in the last highway bill.

“It appears that only a few people in Congress are able to resist earmarks,” O’Toole said. “Earmarks aren’t the only problems with the transportation bill. People want to spend more money than there is. People want to raise the gas tax more than necessary. McCain might be a little better on those issues than other Members of Congress.”

Jeff Solsby, a spokesman for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, warned about earmarks becoming the focus of the debate on the surface transportation law.

“The bigger issue is that Congress needs to take seriously its obligation to create a next-generation surface transportation law,” Solsby said. “We have greater problems that we need to look at, like the multibillion dollar shortfall facing the Highway Trust Fund come Oct. 1.”

Before the year ends, House and Senate transportation leaders are likely to unveil their highway and transit spending proposals, which could include an increase in the gas tax and public-private partnerships to help foot the bill, and likely a fix for the expected shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund.

McCain has already suggested that cutting down on earmarks might be one way to help cover the deficit in highway spending.

“Instead of raising the gas taxes, as some Members of Congress have suggested for the millions of Americans who are already paying more for gas than ever before, the federal and state governments must prioritize transportation spending to focus on projects with the most need rather than building ‘bridges to nowhere,’” McCain said during the floor debate on the fiscal 2008 transportation spending bill.

McCain’s endorsement this spring of a gas tax holiday to run from Memorial Day to Labor Day to combat fuel costs topping $4 per gallon suggests it would be hard to get a gas tax increase through Congress under a McCain administration. In 2000, McCain voted in favor of allowing debate on a bill that would have called for a similar suspension.

Fighting against the tax suspension, ARTBA argued that the summer holiday would cost the already diminishing Highway Trust Fund as much as $9 billion that would be invested in road, bridge and public transit investments that benefit the public and businesses.

The group also argued that even if the federal excises were reduced, the federal government could not guarantee that gas prices would drop commensurately at the pump.

“The gas tax holiday is essentially a gimmick. Our economist produced an estimate that showed that savings for a typical family over the entire period of that holiday would have been $56 for a two-car family and $28 for a one-car family,” Solsby said.

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