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Unpacking the Earmark Requests for Surface Transportation

In March, House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-OR) announced that members of the House of Representatives would be able to submit funding requests for transportation projects in their districts. Also traditionally known as earmarks, these member designated projects are eligible for inclusion in the House surface transportation bill, which authorizes funding for America’s roads, public transit, and other transportation infrastructure. DeFazio introduced an initial version of the $547 billion surface transportation bill on June 4.

The decision to allow specific member designated projects, which have not been included in the last two surface transportation reauthorizations, reflects BPC’s recommendation that such projects be restored, subject to appropriate safeguards around transparency and project selection. BPC’s work on earmarks suggests that they are helpful in engaging members of Congress in negotiating and advancing bipartisan legislation, as well as demonstrating tangible benefits to constituents in their districts who may be asked to pay more for transportation.

In an important gain for transparency, the T&I Committee posted all the member designated requests it received on its website, including the project name, amount requested, and requesting member. Between early March and the deadline of April 23, House members collectively sought 2,380 projects totaling nearly $15 billion. According to BPC’s analysis, those requests broke down as follows:

  • Roads and bridges: The majority of requests, more than 1,300 (57%), were for roads and bridges. These projects included repaving and maintaining highways and roads, expanding and widening roads, safety improvements, and repairing and constructing bridges and overpasses.
  • Public transit and rail: About 400 requests (17%) were for public transit and railroad projects, including maintenance, expansion, and modernization projects, as well zero-emissions bus initiatives.
  • Pedestrian and biking: About 400 requests (17%) were for pedestrian and biking projects like sidewalks, bike lanes, trails, greenways, and wheelchair accessibility ramps.
  • Multiple or other: About 200 requests (9%) were for projects that included multiple types of transportation modes or for other types of projects, such as those related to technology or planning.
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Road and bridge projects were more expensive on average, with an average cost of $7.4 million compared to averages of $5.8 million for public transit and rail projects, and $3.6 million for pedestrian and biking projects.

DeFazio stated that each district would be allowed an estimated maximum of $20 million in individual member requests, and that members did not need to vote in favor of the bill to receive that funding. However, many representatives submitted requests for much more than $20 million. In fact, the ten most expensive requests, mostly highway projects, totaled over $3 billion, more than 20% of the total cost of all member requests.

Where the requests came from

About three-quarters of representatives submitted requests, including about half of Republicans and nearly all Democrats. Requests came from every state except Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. While some districts requested much more than others, if the final legislation caps earmarks at an equal amount per district, there will be greater distributional parity among those that submitted requests.

Members varied widely in the types of projects they requested. For example, in California and Connecticut, public transit and rail projects made up over 30% of requested funding. In Louisiana, which had the fourth highest total requested funding, 100% of requests were for roads and bridges.

Click on the map to see what projects were requested in each state:

State Earmarks Tracker

  • View the state's earmarks request
WA OR CA ID NV WY WV WI VT VA UT TX TN SD SC RI PA OK OH NM NY NJ NH NE ND NC MT MS MO MN MI ME MD MA LA KY KS IN IL IA HI GA FL DE CT CO AZ AR AL AK DC
Alabama

Total Alabama Requested Funding: $44.4 Million

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Alaska

Total Alaska Requested Funding: $105.5 Million

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Arizona

Total Arizona Requested Funding: $180.9 Million

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Arkansas

Total Arkansas Requested Funding: $20 Million

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California

Total California Requested Funding: $2.3 Billion

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Colorado

Total Colorado Requested Funding: $152.3 Million

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Connecticut

Total Connecticut Requested Funding: $254.9 Million

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Delaware

Total Delaware Requested Funding: $109.5 Million

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District Of Columbia

Total D.C. Requested Funding: $77.9 Million

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Florida

Total Florida Requested Funding: $430.3 Million

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Georgia

Total Georgia Requested Funding: $234.9 Million

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Hawaii

Total Hawaii Requested Funding: $43.8 Million

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Idaho

Total Idaho Requested Funding: $20.1 Million

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Illinois

Total Illinois Requested Funding: $530.0 Million

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Indiana

Total Indiana Requested Funding: $39.2 Million

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Iowa

Total Iowa Requested Funding: $107.6 Million

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Kansas

Total Kansas Requested Funding: $685.7 Million

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Kentucky

Total Kentucky Requested Funding: $146.4 Million

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Louisiana

Total Louisiana Requested Funding: $975.7 Million

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Maine

Total Maine Requested Funding: $51.6 Million

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Maryland

Total Maryland Requested Funding: $668.1 Million

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Massachusetts

Total Massachusetts Requested Funding: $381.1 Million

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Michigan

Total Michigan Requested Funding: $344.7 Million

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Minnesota

Total Minnesota Requested Funding: $268.0 Million

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Mississippi

Total Mississippi Requested Funding: $12.4 Million

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Missouri

Total Missouri Requested Funding: $129.2 Million

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Nebraska

Total Nebraska Requested Funding: $130.6 Million

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Nevada

Total Nevada Requested Funding: $54.6 Million

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New Hampshire

Total New Hampshire Requested Funding: $135.3 Million

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New Jersey

Total New Jersey Requested Funding: $260.5 Million

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New Mexico

Total New Mexico Requested Funding: $88.6 Million

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New York

Total New York Requested Funding: $1.2 Billion

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North Carolina

Total North Carolina Requested Funding: $278.0 Million

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Ohio

Total Ohio Requested Funding: $232.0 Million

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Oklahoma

Total Oklahoma Requested Funding: $188.4 Million

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Oregon

Total Oregon Requested Funding: $183.5 Million

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Pennsylvania

Total Pennsylvania Requested Funding: $387.8 Million

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Rhode Island

Total Rhode Island Requested Funding: $84.2 Million

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South Carolina

Total South Carolina Requested Funding: $117.1 Million

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Tennessee

Total Tennessee Requested Funding: $77.6 Million

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Texas

Total Texas Requested Funding: $647.6 Million

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Utah

Total Utah Requested Funding: $76.9 Million

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Vermont

Total Vermont Requested Funding: $40.8 Million

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Virginia

Total Virginia Requested Funding: $440.8 Million

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Washington

Total Washington Requested Funding: $1.7 Billion

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West Virginia

Total West Virginia Requested Funding: $50.7 Million

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Wisconsin

Total Wisconsin Requested Funding: $37.1 Million

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Alabama

Alaska

Arizona

Arkansas

California

Colorado

Connecticut

Delaware

District Of Columbia

Florida

Georgia

Hawaii

Idaho

Illinois

Indiana

Iowa

Kansas

Kentucky

Louisiana

Maine

Maryland

Massachusetts

Michigan

Minnesota

Mississippi

Missouri

Nebraska

Nevada

New Hampshire

New Jersey

New Mexico

New York

North Carolina

Ohio

Oklahoma

Oregon

Pennsylvania

Rhode Island

South Carolina

Tennessee

Texas

Utah

Vermont

Virginia

Washington

West Virginia

Wisconsin

  • View the state's earmarks request
Alabama

Total Alabama Requested Funding: $44.4 Million

Alaska

Total Alaska Requested Funding: $105.5 Million

Arizona

Total Arizona Requested Funding: $180.9 Million

Arkansas

Total Arkansas Requested Funding: $20 Million

California

Total California Requested Funding: $2.3 Billion

Colorado

Total Colorado Requested Funding: $152.3 Million

Connecticut

Total Connecticut Requested Funding: $254.9 Million

Delaware

Total Delaware Requested Funding: $109.5 Million

District Of Columbia

Total D.C. Requested Funding: $77.9 Million

Florida

Total Florida Requested Funding: $430.3 Million

Georgia

Total Georgia Requested Funding: $234.9 Million

Hawaii

Total Hawaii Requested Funding: $43.8 Million

Idaho

Total Idaho Requested Funding: $20.1 Million

Illinois

Total Illinois Requested Funding: $530.0 Million

Indiana

Total Indiana Requested Funding: $39.2 Million

Iowa

Total Iowa Requested Funding: $107.6 Million

Kansas

Total Kansas Requested Funding: $685.7 Million

Kentucky

Total Kentucky Requested Funding: $146.4 Million

Louisiana

Total Louisiana Requested Funding: $975.7 Million

Maine

Total Maine Requested Funding: $51.6 Million

Maryland

Total Maryland Requested Funding: $668.1 Million

Massachusetts

Total Massachusetts Requested Funding: $381.1 Million

Michigan

Total Michigan Requested Funding: $344.7 Million

Minnesota

Total Minnesota Requested Funding: $268.0 Million

Mississippi

Total Mississippi Requested Funding: $12.4 Million

Missouri

Total Missouri Requested Funding: $129.2 Million

Nebraska

Total Nebraska Requested Funding: $130.6 Million

Nevada

Total Nevada Requested Funding: $54.6 Million

New Hampshire

Total New Hampshire Requested Funding: $135.3 Million

New Jersey

Total New Jersey Requested Funding: $260.5 Million

New Mexico

Total New Mexico Requested Funding: $88.6 Million

New York

Total New York Requested Funding: $1.2 Billion

North Carolina

Total North Carolina Requested Funding: $278.0 Million

Ohio

Total Ohio Requested Funding: $232.0 Million

Oklahoma

Total Oklahoma Requested Funding: $188.4 Million

Oregon

Total Oregon Requested Funding: $183.5 Million

Pennsylvania

Total Pennsylvania Requested Funding: $387.8 Million

Rhode Island

Total Rhode Island Requested Funding: $84.2 Million

South Carolina

Total South Carolina Requested Funding: $117.1 Million

Tennessee

Total Tennessee Requested Funding: $77.6 Million

Texas

Total Texas Requested Funding: $647.6 Million

Utah

Total Utah Requested Funding: $76.9 Million

Vermont

Total Vermont Requested Funding: $40.8 Million

Virginia

Total Virginia Requested Funding: $440.8 Million

Washington

Total Washington Requested Funding: $1.7 Billion

West Virginia

Total West Virginia Requested Funding: $50.7 Million

Wisconsin

Total Wisconsin Requested Funding: $37.1 Million

BPC commends the T&I Committee for reopening the modernized earmark process, with safeguards, and offers the following considerations for further improvements going forward.

Eligibility

The T&I Committee’s new member-designated project guidelines generally favored projects that are part of a Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) or Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP). These plans are prepared by states or regional entities to guide the use of federal transportation dollars over a four-year period. In other words, projects that are part of a TIP or STIP are already approved and would be funded without additional federal support. Therefore, the member designated requests for this year’s surface transportation bill are likely to be projects that are already on track for completion. Projects not on a STIP or TIP could be submitted by members, but required additional documentation, particularly to verify project eligibility. This documentation was likely a challenge to collect within the short timeframe to submit requests this year.

Limiting specific member designated funding to TIP and STIP projects has tradeoffs. Arguably, programs called out for direct federal funding in legislation should address unmet needs. With more flexibility, members would be able to secure funding for projects in their district that may not fit neatly into existing funding programs. Members could fund projects that are important to their constituents but have not been adopted by state plans, such as projects in rural areas that may have difficulty drawing the attention of state leaders. Members could also more plausibly take credit for green-lighting projects if they were not already part of a TIP or STIP. Finally, with more general flexibility, members could also fund more creative or innovative projects.

On the other hand, focusing on projects that are part of the TIP or STIP ensures that earmarks support state or regional priorities. The current guidelines maintain the authority of state and local entities to select the most important projects to advance regional goals. Relying on TIP and STIP documentation also eliminates the need for legislative staff to evaluate whether thousands of proposed projects are of sufficient priority and quality to receive federal funding.

If member designated requests remain a part of surface transportation legislation in the coming years, the rules for eligible projects warrant further discussion. The T&I Committee should seek to strike a balance, funding unmet needs while furthering state, local, and regional priorities.

Timeline for requests

House members had less than two months after the committee announcement that members would be able to accept proposals, evaluate potential projects, and submit member directed requests. This is especially challenging since the BPC determined that seventy percent of the House members have been elected since the moratorium was put in place a decade ago.

That short window may favor projects that are shovel-ready with organized supporters and complete documentation, as opposed to projects that may ultimately be more complex and beneficial but are not yet shovel-ready. With more time, busy legislative staff would be able to complete a more comprehensive outreach effort to solicit proposals, consult with state and local transportation entities, and complete a detailed analysis of proposals.

The constraints of a short timeframe may be alleviated in future years if earmarks become a routine part of the process and members anticipate them ahead of time, working to select projects before the official announcement. Still, the T&I Committee should consider a longer period between announcing that earmarks are available and the deadline for requests to ensure legislative staff submit projects that are the best use of taxpayer dollars.

Greasing the wheels

A common argument in favor of earmarks is that they build a bipartisan coalition to help legislation pass by allowing legislators to take credit for projects in their district, offsetting the potential backlash from supporting politically controversial bills. Unlike previous committee chairs, who rewarded votes in favor of their legislation by granting these modernized earmarks, Chairman DeFazio has made clear that this member designated funding is not contingent on voting for the bill. This could potentially weaken earmarks as a targeted incentive, as members can benefit from project funding for their districts without a commitment to support the bill. Still, DeFazio’s version of member designated funding could increase bipartisan engagement with surface transportation funding and increase legislators’ investment in finding a compromise that passes. It remains to be seen whether this latest round of member directed projects has increased bipartisan support for surface transportation legislation.

Transparency

The detailed information about member designated project requests is a major step forward for transparency. Still, there are ways to increase the utility of the information available to the public even further. The T&I Committee’s guidelines for submitting project requests outlined a host of project information required with submissions, including “type of project – by program.” To the extent possible, all of this information should be made publicly available. This is in line with general BPC recommendations on modernized earmarks. Currently, the project names released to the public do not make abundantly clear what the projects entail. Categorizing projects by type (planning, construction, other) and mode (road, bridge, bus, rail, trail, multiple, etc.) would make it easier for policymakers, journalists, analysts, and the public to understand broadly what type of investments earmark requests would fund.

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