Officials deny projects are ‘pork’

By: - August 8, 2005 5:45 am

Wilmington StarNews Online
Say transportation needs are real

To taxpayer watchdog groups, they are the very definition of political pork.

But that’s not how U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., or local officials see the infrastructure projects for Southeastern North Carolina that are included in the massive $286 billion, six-year federal transportation bill.

“I don’t see any projects that are in there that are pork,” said Lanny Wilson, who represents the region on the N.C. Board of Transportation. “I think all of them are warranted and very needed in the area.”

The federal transportation bill, which has yet to be signed by President Bush – although that’s considered a formality – includes nearly 6,500 specific projects inserted into the legislation by members of Congress.

Steve Ellis, vice president for programs at Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the transportation bill has become a vehicle for Congress to show the folks back home that they’re bringing home the bacon.

“We’ve totally turned the process on its head,” he said. “We’re getting the gas tax money at the pump, we’re sending it to Washington, and then we’re having Congress telling states where to spend this money instead of state and local officials who know where the real transportation needs are.”

Mr. Ellis noted that even Republicans, the party that now controls the presidency and both chambers of Congress, were once against earmarks. President Reagan vetoed a transportation bill in the 1980s because it contained 157 earmarked projects.

“Not every earmark is a bad project,” Mr. Ellis said. “But earmarking isn’t the best way to do this process.”

According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, North Carolina has 129 earmarked projects valued at $407.5 million in the new bill.

They range from traditional highway construction projects to $1.6 million for the construction of the Neuse River Trail in Johnston County and $2 million for East Carolina University to study the feasibility of a new mid-Currituck Sound bridge.

In Southeastern North Carolina, the legislation includes $12.84 million for a host of projects.

Mr. McIntyre called the funding a “home run” for the region.

“Good roads lead to improved economic opportunities, and I am excited about these victories for our area,” he said in a statement announcing the projects. “I look forward to continuing our work to improve our highways and roads and strengthen opportunities for economic development, commercial transportation and public safety.”

Several of the earmarks, including work on upgrading U.S. 74 to Interstate 74 and the funding for the Cape Fear Skyway, reflects transportation priorities backed by Gov. Mike Easley.

One local earmark is $2.4 million for the state ports to help develop a new port access on South Front Street, providing quicker and easier access to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and relieving truck traffic pressure on Shipyard Boulevard and Carolina Beach Road.

Thanks to the deeper Cape Fear River shipping channel, the Ports Authority predicts its truck traffic will jump from 470,000 this year to 658,000 movements in 2008. The 2008 figure represents a doubling of the 2003 level.

The transportation bill also includes $836,000 for Wilmington’s downtown transportation center; $800,000 for the Cape Fear Skyway project; $3.2 million for the second bridge to Oak Island; and $5.6 million to upgrade two crossings of U.S. 74 in Columbus County to interchanges.

Additional language in the bill provides $3 million for extending Independence Boulevard to Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway; $3 million for the widening of Randall Parkway; and $5 million to study extending I-20 from Florence, S.C., into North Carolina.

While the projects are all welcome, Mr. Wilson said he thought the key provision for North Carolina in the bill related to the state’s status as a donor state – getting less money back from the federal government for highway projects than it contributes.

Now the state will get 92 cents back for every $1 in gas tax revenue it sends up to Washington. North Carolina currently gets 90.5 cents back.

“It’s taking that amount up, but it’s still not where we want it to be,” Mr. Wilson said.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066