Earmarks worth $5.7 billion return in highway bill slated for markup this week

Most projects in $1 million to $5 million range, but one is just $23,408

A work truck is under the H Street Bridge beside Union Station April 16. The bridge was included in a list of projects to receive earmarked federal funding in a bill scheduled for markup. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A work truck is under the H Street Bridge beside Union Station April 16. The bridge was included in a list of projects to receive earmarked federal funding in a bill scheduled for markup. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 7, 2021 at 4:49pm

The highway bill that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will mark up Wednesday will include $5.7 billion in earmarks — a little more than one-third of the $14.9 billion members requested.

Committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., released the list of projects that made the cut Monday as his panel prepared for a markup expected to last days on the five-year, $547 billion surface transportation reauthorization. The details, in a substitute amendment to the original bill, cover 133 pages of a 1,383-page bill. 

Of the 2,383 individual earmark requests from lawmakers, nearly 62 percent were included, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis. Three hundred and nineteen lawmakers requested earmarks, but the text of the bill doesn’t indicate whether any lawmakers had their requests denied altogether.

The release came as a scheduled conversation between President Joe Biden and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., was postponed until Tuesday, Capito’s office said.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday afternoon that the conversation between Biden and Capito will happen before Biden’s departure for Europe on Wednesday morning.

But Capito told an NBC reporter in the Capitol on Monday that “the goalposts keep moving,” while a New York Times reporter quoted Capito saying she did not “know where we’re going from here.”

The range of the projects in the highway bill is vast and at times extraordinarily local, including $23,408 to rehabilitate Royal Lakes Road in Royal Lakes, Ill., and $189,357 to build a sidewalk on Southcot Drive in Casselberry, Fla. But the list also includes $20 million to manage the lanes on Interstate 15 and state Route 78 in Escondido, Calif.

The bulk of the projects seem to be in the $1 million to $5 million range, such as the $3 million included for work on the H Street Bridge in the District of Columbia. Twenty-five projects would receive $20 million earmarks, including five in California. 

Republicans, who requested fewer earmarks, had better luck receiving them. Nearly 67 percent of the 605 Republican requests were chosen in part or in full. Of the 1,778 projects Democrats requested, 1,067, or 60 percent, were selected. Thirty-eight projects were split among multiple members, with three of those projects providing funding to both Democratic and Republican districts for the same project.

The bill is a marked change from the 2015 highway law, which did not include earmarks. A one-year extension of that law expires Sept. 30.  

If the bill to be marked up Wednesday becomes law, it will be the first highway reauthorization to include earmarks since the 2005 highway law,  according to the Eno Center for Transportation.  

Guardrails on new process

The earmark process was reinstituted with guardrails meant to prevent lawmakers from exploiting the process. DeFazio and ranking member Sam Graves, R-Mo., agreed to require that all requests include documentation on projects, including letters of support from local or state entities; sources of funding for the full share of the cost of the project beyond the amount requested; where proposals were in the environmental review and permitting process; and which phase projects were in and whether they received prior federal funding. 

Members were also required to certify that they, their spouse or family members did not have a financial interest in the project.

In the lead-up to the release, DeFazio indicated that each member would be able to designate an equal amount, between $15 million and $20 million, for specific projects regardless of whether they vote for or against the bill.  Some members did not request any earmarks, while others submitted lengthy lists of projects. 

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Request for $946 million denied

Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., asked for nearly $946 million for full federal funding for a project connecting Louisiana Highway 1 to Louisiana Highway 30 in his district as well as $1.6 million for an environmental evaluation of that project and $8 million for pre-engineering design for the project. 

In the end, the $8 million and $1.6 million requests were selected. The $946 million request was not. 

Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash., who requested $665 million for the widening of state Route 18 in her district, did not get that request, according to the bill text. Schrier, who represents a western Washington state district long held by a Republican, led her Democratic colleagues in requests, asking for $892 million for projects in her district. She received at least two — $8.6 million for a pedestrian bridge widening in Wenatchee and $6 million for another pedestrian bridge in Orting. 

In a statement announcing the project selection, DeFazio admitted “it certainly was not an easy nor quick task for our committee to vet thousands of submissions.”

“But it was absolutely worth it to give elected representatives the chance to directly advocate on behalf of their districts in our surface transportation bill,” he said, adding that he hoped the money would “help give viable projects the funding they need to get across the finish line.”