From Dave Van Hattum, Policy and Program Manager

“The term "earmark" has come to refer to projects that members of Congress write into spending bills without proving their worthiness. The Central Corridor project has gone through years of vetting in the competition for federal dollars and has risen to the top of the national ‘new starts’ list in the federal bureaucracy”. (Pioneer Press, 11/16/10).

Funding for New Starts projects, such as the Central Corridor, ultimately ends up in a congressional appropriations bill, which may contain numerous earmarks for other projects.  However, to call federal funding for the Central Corridor an “earmark” is to essentially make the term meaningless.

The Federal Transit Administration, through its New Starts program, can provide approximately 50% of the capital funding for new LRT or commuter rail lines. It is critical to note that in order to receive this federal funding, local rail projects compete against similar projects around the country, with only 1 in 5 receiving funding. These transit projects go through an extremely rigorous, multi-year evaluation process. Selected projects have to meet  a cost-effectiveness index threshold and pass other economic and social tests. There has to be an up-front local funding commitment, including the ability to demonstrate long-term local funding capacity for a region’s transit system as a whole.

Interestingly, local highway projects receiving federal funding (typically at 80-90%) go through a far less rigorous evaluation process. There is no competitive federal funding process for highway expansion; federal money is provided to states as a “block grant” to spend as they see fit.  Highway funds are often subject to federal earmarks. A member of Congress will direct transportation dollars to a particular project (often for planning) reducing the amount of funding that can be allocated by its state DOT.

In a recent interview, Jim Oberstar, outgoing chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, spoke about earmarks. Environment & Energy Daily had this recap of his remarks:

“With regard to the recommendation to end all earmarks, Oberstar said it would be smart to end excesses like the 27,000 earmarks that were presented in 2006; however, he said the other end of the spectrum is too simplistic and ignores the role members of Congress should rightly take in determining where the country's resources are invested. Additionally, Oberstar said his committee has already handled the issue of earmarks by making the process accountable. ‘We cleaned up that whole process in our committee and I think we did it properly and did it well,’ he said.”