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Why 650 Local Governments Use Lobbyists To Get Cash for Buses, Trains, and Roads

Cities are courting the federal government for millions in investments. It's an unprecedented maneuver, not without its pitfalls.

Last September, city fathers in Dubuque, Iowa, lured three members of the White House cabinet to the banks of the Mississippi River on the same day they welcomed officials from one the world’s biggest corporations, IBM. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, accompanied by a host of aides, all climbed aboard the city’s green trolley car. Among their stops: Dubuque’s renovated harbor area, and then the historic millwork district -- once the nation’s largest -- and the nearby Roshek building, a depression-era department store undergoing a grand remodel.

Meanwhile, Dubuque’s private sector guest, IBM, was over at the convention center announcing plans to make the city a living laboratory for its Smarter Planet program. Up to 1,300 new IBM employees will begin fielding tech service calls later this year at the Roshek building, and the company hopes those workers will also be able to enjoy the fruits of a sweeping partnership between IBM and its host city -- a partnership aimed at creating an integrated transportation system involving smart new bus routes, pedestrian-friendly streets, and arterial roads to take trucks out of neighborhoods.

It sounds positively idyllic, but there is, of course, a catch. In order to begin turning this vision into a reality, Dubuque wants a federal investment of $50 million. The economic returns would be 50 to one, officials maintain. And while that’s impressive, federal transportation policy has rarely been geared to reward such things, let alone Dubuque’s partnerships among local and state government and the business community. Instead, the process of seizing federal transportation dollars has often been a political free-for-all, with some of the biggest fights in Washington, D.C.

“I told them we had in essence a 21st-century project here,” says Mayor Roy Buol of his multi-pronged transport plan. “But we’re trying to get money through a 20th-century funding stream.”

Indeed. On that September day, Buol’s municipal government was among more than 650 cities and counties paying federal lobbyists to help deliver them transportation dollars from the nation’s capital. While polls show Americans don’t want to make transportation policy through earmarks, that hasn’t stopped local officials from going after them. As lawmakers grappled with renewal of an expiring multi-year transportation law last September, the number of cities and counties lobbying on transportation had grown by 80 percent since the last time a transport bill was about to expire, in the fall of 2003. And the cities and counties who list transportation as among their priorities spent a total of more than $35 million lobbying Washington through the first three quarters of last year; if even a quarter of that spending was solely devoted to transportation, it totals more than $8 million, a hefty sum for cash-strapped local governments.

Those numbers track with another sobering trend line. The Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank, notes that the last few transportation bills “have been marked by the rapid proliferation of federal transportation programs and by an increasing reliance on congressional earmarks,” adding that “both are symptoms of lack of focus and accountability.”

A harsh judgment, to be sure. But until the local lobby sees a new vision from Washington, the scramble for cash remains the only way to play, insiders say.

Earmarks and Stimulus Spending

Officials break ground on Hawaii’s Kapolei Interchange Complex, one of many projects earmarked for funds from an appropriations bill that passed last month. The project, mostly reliant on federal funds, will provide greater access to a major freeway. Just last month, for instance, Congress passed its appropriations spending for 2010, including more than $52 billion for highways and transit. Most of this money flows to states and transit agencies to be spent at their discretion, but hundreds of local governments circumvented that by winning earmarks from their congressional delegations. Hawaiian members, for instance, marked more than $3.4 million for the Kapolei Interchange Complex. Dubuque won $389,600 from its Iowa Senators to go towards the construction of an arterial road to help divert truck traffic from its downtown and neighborhood streets; officials there have been trying unsuccessfully to fund the road for more than a decade. Neither earmark will fund the entire project, so local officials will likely be back to ask for more. In both those cases, the state will provide little or no matching funds.

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