Despite earmark ban, local governments hope for help from highway bill

(Photo credit: Taber Andrew Bain/Flickr)

The death of earmarks might make it more difficult for federal lawmakers to introduce old school pork-barrel politics into the highway bill now being discussed in the U.S. Senate, but it also means that local officials have fewer ways to get help to fund big infrastructure projects of their own.

Lawmakers are expected to work through the weekend on legislation that would refill the Highway Trust Fund and other vehicles for financing transportation infrastructure. In years past, these “highway bills” came complete with long lists of narrow-bore line items — earmarks — inserted by individual legislators in the course of negotiations. A 2005 highway bill with the acronym SAFETEA-LU might have been the moment Congress reached peak earmark. That was the year Sen. Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, was involved in securing [$223 million]( for a bridge to remote Gravina Island, which came to be called the “Bridge to Nowhere.” The bridge, which was never finished, was one of [hundreds of projects to receive transportation earmarks]( in the bill. In 2010, with the fiscally conservative Tea Party wave sweeping into the House and the public awash in stories of wasteful government spending, the House adopted a moratorium on earmarks, and the Senate soon followed. The next highway bill, with the acronym MAP-21, was bereft of earmarks.

It passed, but not before some lawmakers complained that the absence of earmarks made it harder to legislate. Those complaints still echo. Last year, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) [told the Chicago Daily Herald newspaper]( that eliminating earmarks “created a situation where you can’t get transportation bills passed, you can’t get highways funded.” His spokesman, Ben Marter, told Sunlight on Wednesday that Durbin stands by that comment.

With earmarks gone, the general practice of steering federal funding back to an individual lawmaker’s district or state is more euphemistically referred to as “targeted spending” — Sunlight is also on the lookout for [“nearmarks”]( — and is harder to find. But it is not now, and maybe was not ever, just a way for lawmakers to bring home the bacon.

The old rules gave local officials a way to get federal help for projects that states weren’t interested in — the only problem was, there weren’t many mechanisms in place to evaluate each idea’s relative worth. It was as simple as fielding a call from the right congressional staffer at the right time, says Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Around appropriation time, congressional aides would call groups and local governments, asking after projects that needed funding.

That avenue is now closed to local governments. But another one is still open, and they’re taking it: K Street. Governments hired lobbyists to represent their interests in Washington during negotiations over each of the last two major highway bills, MAP-21 in 2012 and, before a moratorium on earmarks began in 2010, around the SAFETEA-LU bill in 2005, records show. Lobbyists are also at work around current highway bill negotiations. While it is difficult to make aggregate claims about lobbying on specific issues based on an analysis of lobbying records, it appears that if there is any trend, there are more lobbyists working on highway issues now than before the earmarks ban.

Either way, officials, corporations, trade associations and other groups have dozens of representatives in Washington working on highway issues. There are at least 220 lobbyist-client relationships so far in 2015 targeted specifically towards “Highway” issues, according to a Sunlight analysis of Senate records, although that might count some clients multiple times because of the way Senate records are kept. (This key word lacks the ambiguity of “Interstate,” which also refers to “interstate commerce.”) By this time in 2012, the year President Barack Obama signed the MAP-21 transportation bill, there were 241 such relationships reported to the Senate Office of Public Records — about one relationship for every two members of Congress.

Through mid-year 2005, the year President George W. Bush signed SAFETEA-LU, there were just 20 such relationships. This was before the earmarks ban, but it was also before lobbying rules changed in 2008 to require more disclosure — so these numbers alone aren’t enough to prove that there wasn’t as much lobbying around transportation issues before the earmarks ban. Counting relationships on transportation issues more broadly, there were only a few hundred more through the first three quarters of 2012 than there were during a comparable period in 2005. However, in those simpler times, lobbying may not have been as necessary.

Regardless of any trend, records show that local governments are spending on representation in Washington even as federal funding may be getting harder to come by, and even when they expect gridlock in Washington to lower their chances of steering funds to a specific regional project.

In this new, post-earmark world, one expert says this raises a new question: What’s the point?

“It seems like a waste of time to me,” says Puentes, the policy expert.

He wasn’t just talking about the state of affairs in Washington, where reports suggest the highway bill is at the mercy of national partisan issues like [the Affordable Care Act and the Export-Import bank]( instead of futures trading in the market for political pork. Under post-earmark House and Senate rules, discretionary programs must meet criteria that vary from bill to bill. They might lend precedence to projects focused on commercial freight, or that upgrade rural infrastructure. Some bills are more ripe for targeted spending provisions than others.

While not without politics, getting a project funded in this environment hinges less on relationships with lawmakers and more on the ability to deliver empirical evidence at least giving the impression that a project would deliver, or is delivering, on a specific set of goals, Puentes says.

Federal funds account for only twenty-five cents for every dollar that states spend on transportation, a widely accepted figure that is backed up by, among others, Congressional Budget Office numbers. Given this, officials looking for funding might focus on their state capitol, not Capitol Hill. But the story is different when it comes to capital spending, like funding for a new road, overpass, or bridge, says Kevin Pula, a policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association [says]( that federal dollars account for about half of all such spending.

One example of the consequences is the Interstate 73 Coalition, created by a group of five local governments in rural southern Virginia. They have hired a lobbyist, John Stirrup, of Arlington, Va.-based Alcalde & Fay, to pursue funding for a regional project in the next highway bill. But they — and Stirrup — readily admit that the odds are slim that they will get funding this year. The Coalition is also lobbying at the state level, and the state legislature has passed a bill that allows Virginia to coordinate with other states to plan, fund, and build the interstate.

They aren’t the only group of local governments with lobbyists currently working on Capitol Hill — and they aren’t even the only group advocating for Interstate 73, the route that, they say, would bring jobs and new development opportunities to southern Virginia. But their efforts reveal the rough terrain any group must now navigate to finance transportation infrastructure in the post-earmark world.

Once a thriving hub for textiles and furniture manufacturing, offshoring opened up by the free-trade agreements of the 1990s emptied out the factories of Virginia’s Franklin and Henry counties. The recession dug deeper into what was left of the local economy, but things are looking up, says Chris Morrill, the city manager of Roanoke, Va. Working at the state and federal level, local officials [helped extend]( Amtrak’s Northeast Regional line to Roanoke, with construction under way and service slated to begin in 2017. Now they’re hoping to work a similar deal on Interstate 73, a project that would install a newer, wider, road south from Roanoke to Martinsville, near the North Carolina state line. The benefits of this stretch of Interstate 73 would be relatively modest. Asked to describe them, Stirrup, the lobbyist, referred to a set of 2008 reports from consultants at Chmura Economics & Analytics that estimate construction would create thousands of jobs, and that the road would make southern Virginia a competitive location for regional distribution centers. Morrill also told Sunlight that the freeway would siphon traffic off of other, more congested corridors, and make for a safer drive through the hilly terrain between Roanoke and the state line. If North Carolina officials also built Interstate 73 north from Greensboro, the connection could also open up new regional opportunities.

The bottom line, Morrill and Stirrup both told Sunlight, is that officials in southern Virginia are trying everything they can to get their local economy going again without the industries that used to hire local workers.

There’s just one problem with using an interstate project to do that: The money isn’t there. A state Department of Transportation spokesperson, Jason Bond, told Sunlight that it would cost $4 billion to build that stretch of road. (Morrill says the high price tag is likely thanks to rough terrain along parts of the route.) The state has $10 million set aside for the interstate, Bond says, but that isn’t enough to get through the design work that would need to happen before construction can start. What’s more, the state has other priorities in its current six-year plan. Interstate 73, also popular with officials along its route in North and South Carolina, isn’t one of them.

No one will ever know if the five cities and counties in rural southern Virginia would have accepted an earmark to move Interstate 73 further along. Stirrup, their lobbyist, was chief of staff for then-Rep. Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma — a lawmaker and obstetrician who was such a fiscal hawk during his later time in the Senate, where he campaigned against what he called government waste, that Democrats came to call him “Dr. No.” But perhaps the mere presence of earmarks would have given them more options. (And, for what it’s worth, Stirrup told Sunlight he would love to discuss I-73 with his old boss.)

As it stands, the City of Roanoke, the City of Martinsville, Roanoke County, Franklin County, and Henry County are each paying between $2,000 and $1,000 a month to retain Stirrup, who has been tasked with attempting to get Interstate 73 funded. The North Eastern Strategic Alliance, an economic development group representing nine counties in Southern Carolina, has also retained a lobbyist to press for Interstate 73 funding in the House and Senate, a Sunlight Foundation analysis of lobbying records show.

Also sending paid representatives to the Hill this year are the East Arkansas Good Roads Association, the Arizona Department of Transportation, the State of Nevada, and the City of Tucson, Ariz. — and that’s just the governments whose lobbyists explicitly mention an interstate project in their disclosures to the Senate Office of Public Records, which collects records on lobbying across the federal government.

Chris Morrill, the city manager in Roanoke, Va., says he and his colleagues in local government are considering every available option to secure funding. While forming regional coalitions is also not new, Morrill says it seems more important now than in years past. Making the regional case could do more to bend the ear of state or federal lawmakers. Some local governments are still reeling from the effects of the recession on their property and income tax base, which means they may also need to pool their resources out of necessity. And cooperation may be the name of the game at the state level, too. The state of Virginia has passed legislation that allows it to coordinate planning on Interstate 73 with other states along its proposed route, which stretches from Myrtle Beach, S.C., into northern Michigan.

As for lobbying for federal funding, which Roanoke and its fellow governments only began in June, that’s just one part of a larger plan, he says. Their engagement with Stirrup will last through next year.

“You’ve got to start the journey somewhere,” Morrill says.