About a decade ago, Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall got a phone call from then-U.S. Sen. Trent Lott.
Lott, at the time the Senate’s majority leader, brought tidings of great financial joy.
“He said ‘I’m going to send you $100 million to build that bridge in Greenville,’” Hall recalled in an interview last week.
That bridge in Greenville carries U.S. Highway 82 over the Mississippi River. It opened in July. The $100-million earmark Lott produced paid for a third of its cost.
Lott had the power to insert such an earmark because of his status as majority leader. Current Sen. Thad Cochran has done the same for many a project, transportation or otherwise, especially when he was chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
Proposed legislation that President Barack Obama championed in a Labor Day speech would do away with the earmark system, and it has some of the state’s transportation officials worried.
To replace the system of Congressional members inserting earmarks to fund pet projects, the legislation would create a national infrastructure bank. First proposed in 2007, and supported by Obama during his campaign for president, the infrastructure bank would essentially act as a clearinghouse for transportation funding, and remove the power of the purse strings from Congress.
The bank would offer grants, direct loans and loan guarantees to fund large, multi-jurisdictional transportation projects similar to the Greenville bridge or Interstate 69, which will eventually run through North Mississippi. It would also use private investment, though the details of exactly how and how much were not spelled out in the bill.
The bank itself would be comprised of a panel, whose members would be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. They’re the ones who would judge a project’s funding worthiness. The legislation intends for the panel to be politically independent from Congress and the White House.
It signifies a major shift in transportation funding policy. The earmark system is popular with members of Congress because it gives them a tangible benefit to point out to their constituents. It has also been the subject of loud and frequent criticism from government watchdog groups, and even some congressmen. Both Obama and his opponent in 2008, Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain, made the elimination of earmarks a prevalent theme in each of their campaigns.
“Whether you like it or not, I think it’s the right thing to do,” Hall said of earmarks. “We have survived on it. That bridge would have never been built without an earmark.”
Hall, a Republican, and his two colleagues on the Mississippi Transportation Commission, Democrats Bill Minor and Wayne Brown, are rarely in agreement on policy issues. They have found common ground on the national infrastructure bank.
“Earmarks are a great (issue) of the media, but it’s a practical matter,” said Brown, who represents the Southern District on the Commission. “Earmarks are very small as compared to the overall spending for transportation.”
Brown admitted that a few transportation mega-projects would need some sort of oversight from a national body, those projects that cross jurisdictional lines and require cooperation from multiple states.
The problem with eliminating earmarks, Brown said, is it will make it almost impossible for smaller projects within a single state to gain federal funding.
“It does bother me when you’ve got a group in Washington that’s going to say which projects ought to be built,” Brown said. “Congress represents the people. That panel won’t. Let Congress decide. I like what Trent Lott said. There’s no pork south of Memphis.”
Like Brown’s district, most of Northern District Transportation Commissioner Bill Minor’s area is rural. Also like Brown, Minor is not convinced that small projects within rural areas will be given a fighting chance against similar-sized projects in large population centers.
“They want to spend most of the money in urban areas,” Minor said. “I really think they’re favoring the heavy population areas. We don’t need to be left out in the cold. I just don’t think it’s going to be good for us.”
The three transportation commissioners all say that the reason they think large population centers will be favored among the infrastructure bank’s panelists is what Hall called U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s “obsession” with mass transit.
“That doesn’t do a thing for us,” Hall said. “We might get a few buses out of it, but the South and the West, that helps us none.”
Said Minor: “The biggest thing they want to do is high-speed rail, which again favors the big cities and not the country road that needs a bridge replaced.”
Aside from what areas and what kinds of projects will be met with the most favor, there are logistical problems with the idea of an infrastructure bank, said Mike Pepper.
“The Administration has had that as a goal, but they’ve never come up with various specifics,” said Pepper, executive director of the Mississippi Roadbuilders Association, whose members rely on state and federal transportation work to stay in business.
The specifics Pepper would like to see spelled out have to do with the delineation of authority among the infrastructure bank, the federal department of transportation and the state departments of transportation.
“That just hasn’t been provided yet,” he said. “No one really knows how that’s going to work.”
In his Labor Day speech, Obama touted the infrastructure bank as a way to create jobs within the construction industry and to stimulate economic development. He proposed seeding the infrastructure bank’s account with $50 billion, with that total to rise to nearly $400 billion over the next six years, using public and private money.
William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, applauded the initiative.
He wrote last week in his Up Front blog on the Institution’s web site that the infrastructure bank “offers a welcome new direction in an increasingly shrill and decreasingly productive economic debate. It shifts the focus toward the kinds of public action that can help build a more efficient and competitive economy in the long run.
“And it recognizes a key reality: the consumer-led model of economic growth on which we have depended for decades has hit a wall. It’s time for investment to lead the way, with new partnerships between the public and private sectors. Done right, the infrastructure bank would represent not only a new institution, but also a new paradigm.”
Bridge photo taken by Bill Johnson, for the MBJ
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