Another Bridge to Nowhere: Government Waste Taking Us Over Fiscal Cliff

When you add in all the waste from the other agencies of the federal government Coburn highlights, there’s literally hundreds of millions in waste that can and should be cut before a single American should be asked to pay more in taxes.

By Terri Hall | December 4, 2012

Bridge to Nowhere
Stevenson Road Covered Bridge/Photo credit: Anthony Dillon

With all the talk of the ‘fiscal cliff’ that magically appeared the day after the election, let’s examine how we got here. Is it because taxpayers pay too little? Is it because some aren’t paying their ‘fair share’? When you look at the sheer volume of government waste, you’ll find the answer staring you in the face.

Senator Tom Coburn publishes a government waste book every year, and this year, it’s chock full of transportation pork that has no relevance to the federal taxpayer, and wastes our money. Let’s take a look at some of the most absurd examples of waste in the Federal Highway Trust Fund and similar funds, like the National Scenic Byways grant to build an 18-ft Lego replica of a street in West Virginia. Considering the trust fund has required bailout after bailout in recent years, it’s a no-brainer to cut the waste since Congress continues to ask Americans to pay tolls galore for badly needed highway improvements.

Another ‘Bridge to nowhere’

Federal taxpayers were asked to pay for a half million dollar makeover of an Ohio bridge to nowhere – literally. It’s not connected to any road, park or trail, and no one uses it. It’s in a remote area of Greene County and one side even contains a ‘No Trespassing’ sign warning people to stay away. Yet taxpayers paid to have it renovated.

Republicans paid the price when they passed a pork-laden federal highway bill with over 6,000 earmarks back in 2006, which included the now infamous ‘bridge to nowhere’ in Alaska that later forced former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin to repudiate it when she joined the Republican ticket for Vice President in 2008.

Then, there’s the sidewalk to nowhere that’s only 20 blocks long and sits on a freeway, so since it’s so dangerous, mothers wisely caution their children not to use it. What makes it more ridiculous is the fact it used ‘Safe Route to Schools’ funds, and yet the sidewalk isn’t safe at all, and most kids still take the school bus to get to school. Cost to taxpayers – $1.1 million.

In Michigan, at an intersection of a highway and a local road, federal mandates for highway reconstruction forced taxpayers to build four wheelchair accessible ramps and curbs at each corner. None of them even connect to a sidewalk. After a few feet in length, one ramp abruptly ends into a utility pole! Cost to taxpayers, $10,000. In San Angelo, Texas, the city plans to build a 3.7-mile bike trail at a cost of $4 million – that’s more than $1 million a mile! Will it be paved with gold? No, actually concrete, but perhaps it’s concrete laced with gold at that price. Why? Because the Texas Department of Transportation offered them a $3.2 million grant, likely from federal funds.

This push for sidewalks and hike & bike trails is part of the ‘complete streets’ and sustainable development policies sweeping the country that mandate a certain amount of highway dollars be committed to hike and bike trails, curbs and sidewalks, even when they don’t make sense. All this wasteful spending derives from gas tax revenues collected at the pump or what Ronald Reagan accurately called true ‘user fees’ that make up the Highway Trust Fund that should be used for roads, highways and bridges.

A ‘complete streets’ bill, however, being passed down to state legislatures through the National Conference of State Legislatures would mandate twenty-percent of all highway funds be dedicated to bike paths, curbs, and sidewalks. We defeated it in Texas, but who knows how many states fell for it. When taxpayers are being told there’s no money for roads requiring tolling everything that moves, in part, it’s due to these federal and even state mandates that starve road funds.

Street cars named No Desire

Coburn’s report highlights how federal taxpayers were also asked to pay $36 million for a 2.2-mile trolley line in St. Louis from a museum to a library. In San Antonio, local officials are foisting an undesirable downtown street car project on taxpayers, and heisting $92 million in road funds to do so as an end run around a public vote. Advocates cite the ability to snag federal funds as a reason for pursuing the project.

It doesn’t stop at trolleys and streetcars, the awful waste in transportation dollars extends to trains, too. Thirty-eight million in federal transit funds (which are funded from federal gas taxes) were spent on sightseeing trains for cruise ship tourists in Alaska. How about the $145,000 in highway funds spent on a bronze sculpture of Herbert Hoover’s wife in Waterloo, Iowa, or the $74 million dollar electric vehicle tax credit, or the free bus rides for Super Bowl XLVI attendees in Indianapolis at a price tag of $142,419?

To top it all off, Grants Pass, Oregon will spend $78,000 each on five bus shelters. A grand total of $388,000 in federal highway funds will be used for the project.

Coburn’s report notes: “In 2009, the city planned to spend $322,000 for between six and ten shelters. By 2012, however, the price estimate rose to more than $530,000 for only five shelters. That would have put the cost at $106,000 each.”

“‘Around here, that’s enough to build a three-bedroom house,’ commented Grants Pass Councilman Dan de Young, ‘What we should do is build a house at each station, and if you miss your last bus, you can stay there overnight.’”

Misplaced priorities

“Would the dollars spent on these transportation projects not have been better spent to fix some of the 22,158 deficient bridges plaguing our national highway system?” asks Coburn.

Truly, building and maintaining our highway system, the lifeline of daily living rather than extravagant and unnecessary bus shelters, is one of the few core functions of government. Yet, our nation’s Highway Trust Fund funded by gas tax revenues has been habitually raided and neglected, forcing a reliance on tolling, which is a cleverly cloaked tax hike imposed by state and local governments.

When you add in all the waste from the other agencies of the federal government Coburn highlights, there’s literally hundreds of millions in waste that can and should be cut before a single American should be asked to pay more in taxes. And Coburn’s Waste Book 2012 isn’t meant to be exhaustive, rather to be illustrative of the most outrageous waste in any given year. There’s certainly more fat to be burned. His analysis also doesn’t touch on the waste in state or local government nor the skyrocketing trajectory of increased government spending levels.

So all told, there’s more waste than one senator’s office has the resources to identify, and clearly government spending as a whole is so out of control, it’s unsustainable. Hence, the term ‘fiscal cliff.’ Well, may I suggest politicians retreat from their proverbial demagoguery and class warfare and focus instead on restoring fiscal sanity in Washington? A financially solvent America is the only path to prosperity for all.

Terri Hall is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), which defends against eminent domain abuse and promotes non-toll transportation solutions. She’s a home school mother of eight turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.