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The Monkey Trap in transportation funding

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POSTED: October 3, 2007 5:04 a.m.

A once-in-a-blue-moon event occurred recently at a committee meeting of Georgia’s State Transportation Board. During an update on projects in the state’s various congressional districts, the committee was informed that a local government had withdrawn its project from consideration for funding, opting to complete it instead with local money.

 The "original" monkey trap is a hollow container chained to a stake and baited with food. The hole in the container is just big enough for the monkey to reach into but not large enough for it to withdraw both the food and its paw. The food is far too enticing to release, however, so the monkey willingly sits there, food in hand in jar, as its captors approach. 

So how does the monkey trap work in transportation policy? The federal government baits the trap with federal funding, and state and local agencies take the bait. By the time they realize they’re mired in federal regulatory requirements, the funds are firmly in their grasp and they won’t let go - and they’re caught.  

This time, however, the local government wisely decided that since it had already begun the project with local funds, it would continue with local funds and avoid the extra steps, cost and delays associated with accepting federal funds. Such delays often add years to implementation.

Following the guidelines of the Governor’s Congestion Mitigation Task Force, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and Atlanta Regional Commission may yet avoid that trap in the future, or at least ensure that the bait is worth the risk. The ARC ranked about 200 projects in the Regional Transportation Plan based on congestion mitigation and benefits versus cost, but GRTA has asked that ARC rank about 50 "very significant" grandfathered projects, projects with costs exceeding $25 million. Locally funded projects would not have to undergo the process. In future transportation plans, benefit-cost analysis will also be incorporated in the project selection process.

GRTA is not asking for changes in the projects based on how they score this time; the idea is to shine a light on the process, the board made clear. GRTA board member Jerry Bowman expressed concern, for example, in how five projects with a combined cost of more than $250 million, earning the lowest priority in the ARC’s list of projects and expected to take up to 58 years to pay back, were explained as a "county’s highest priority."  

Funding shortfalls are a serious concern in transportation circles, for transportation improvements, maintenance and repair. Witnesses at the traveling joint transportation study committee hearings have warned legislators that there is a dire need for additional funding. Some are calling for facilitating private-sector investment in the state; others are urging tax increases.  

It’s wise to explore all options. First, however, taxpayers and legislators deserve to know that decisions with limited transportation dollars are prioritized based on sound analysis, on a need-to-have basis. When taxpaying travelers, commuters and businesses are asked to give up more of their money to overcome Georgia’s transportation challenges, they need reassurance that they are getting bang for their buck. A methodical scoring process helps ascertain the transportation needs versus the "wants," prioritize projects and provide a more accurate picture of budget shortfalls.

Helping set the monkey trap for states is the U.S. Congress. A report by the federal Department of Transportation’s Inspector General found the fiscal 2006 transportation bill contained 7,808 "earmarks" totaling $8.08 billion, or 15 percent of highway appropriations and 28 percent of transit appropriations. Fiscal 2005 had 2,094 earmarks totaling $3.27 billion. In fact, between 1996 and 2005, the number of earmarks increased by more than 1,150 percent. 

In Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address, he said, "A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government ... ." 

Every earmark specifies a use and subtracts from a state’s transportation funds, and puts it out of the reach of state Department of Transportation’s discretion. In all likelihood, that DOT has a better, higher use for those dollars in its list of priorities. Asking taxpayers for more money while playing fast and loose with state transportation policy is neither wise nor frugal government.

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.

 

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