Santorum’s Tunnel and Federal Transportation Policy

If, like me, you’re a Pennsylvanian who wants a smaller federal government, you’ve probably been scratching your head at Rick Santorum’s success in the Republican primaries. An article in today’s Washington Times on the former Pennsylvania senator’s lack of popularity in the Keystone State is instructive.

The Times singles out Santorum’s leading role in getting federal taxpayers to foot 80 percent of the bill for a tunnel project in Pittsburgh that even former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell called “a tragic mistake.” (When “Fast Eddie” dings a government project, you know it’s bad.) Indeed, the North Shore Connector was originally projected to cost $350 million but the final price tag will be closer to $528 million. (The Obama administration kindly kicked in $63 million in stimulus funds to help get the over-budget project finished.) As one local critic notes, that’s a lot of money to provide “cheap public transportation” for “Steeler and Pirates fans too lazy to walk across one of four bridges that already connect downtown and the ballparks.”

According to the Times, Santorum’s zeal for the project stemmed from a “deal” he struck with the local trade unions that would benefit from its construction:

‘We had a deal with Santorum,’ said Mr. Brooks, whose Greater Pennsylvania Regional Council of Carpenters, along with other major building and construction trade unions, endorsed Mr. Santorum after the senator went to bat in Washington for construction of the tunnel under the Allegheny River. The tunnel’s only stop is at the two taxpayer-funded sports stadiums built with Mr. Santorum’s support. ‘Very seldom are you going to have a union endorse a Republican,’ said Mr. Brooks. ‘But the project created 4,000 jobs’ — even if they were temporary — for workers in the construction and building trades.

Santorum’s soul-selling is illustrative of the problems with the federal government financing transportation projects.

The tunnel project clearly has nothing to do with promoting the nation’s general welfare. It’s a purely parochial concern that should have been paid for by the people who would use it. But that’s just it – “Yinzers” would have never agreed to pick up the entire tab for the project. That leads to another problem: federal transportation dollars are often allocated on the basis of political, rather than economic, considerations. If you’ve ever taken the white-knuckle drive on I-70 near Washington, PA, then you know that that there’s no way that the money spent on the Pittsburgh tunnel was the best use of transportation dollars in western Pennsylvania. Then there’s the “Bud Shuster Highway” in central Pennsylvania, which only got built because the former congressman was able to use his chairmanship of the House Transportation Committee to bring home the bacon (see here).

In sum, Pennsylvania is a good example of why transportation policy should be devolved from the federal government to the states. Unfortunately, Rick Santorum’s purchasing of political support with federal taxpayer dollars shows why members of Congress won’t be in any hurry to give up the transportation golden goose anytime soon.

See here for more on downsizing the Department of Transportation.