Are Campaign Contributions Greasing the Wheels for New Highway Construction?

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Despite Crumbling Infrastructure, in 2008 Only About 10 Percent of Transportation Earmark Dollars Went to Repair

The nation has 73,000 crumbling bridges, but year after year startlingly few federal transportation dollars go to fixing them.

In 2008, for example, just a few months after the tragic Minneapolis bridge collapse which killed 13 and sparked alarm and outrage across the country, Congress directed only 74 of the 704 highway projects earmarked in the transportation appropriations bill to repair or maintain a bridge, tunnel, or overpass.

Only about ten percent of the projects, and about ten percent of the funding, focused on fixing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Most of the $570 million went for new highways and other new construction.

Millions of dollars also flowed in another direction… from ‘highway interests’ (defined as those from development, automobile, and construction sectors) to the campaign coffers of elected officials in Annapolis and Washington, D.C.

Were those dollars “greasing the wheels” in our state and federal capitols?

Maryland PIRG’ new Greasing the Wheels: the Crossroads of Campaign Money and Transportation Policy looks at the 2008 transportation appropriations bill using data never before available, laying out the details of Congress’ earmark requests. The report also examines the campaign contributions from highway interests both here in Maryland and nationally.

In 2008, Maryland had a total of 388 bridges categorized as structurally deficient.  In the report, we highlight that candidates for federal office in Maryland received $786,757 in 2008 from highway interests and only provided one out of sixteen transportation earmarks for bridge repair.  Candidates for state office received $178,513 from highway interests in 2008, and the biggest transportation priority in the following legislative session was funding the construction of the Inter County Connector, which is expected to be the country’s most expensive toll road when completed.

“In our current political system, elected officials must raise huge sums of campaign contributions from major donors to win reelection,” said Fielding Huseth, Advocate for Maryland PIRG.

“In part because of this, we believe that transportation spending is skewed toward road-widening and new highway projects favored by developers, automobile interests, and road builders who make those contributions,” Huseth added.

Here in Maryland, we have an opportunity to make sure the state’s priorities, such as transportation policy, are in line with the interest of the public by implementing a public financing system that would hold politicians directly accountable to voters.  Under a public financing system, candidates running for a General Assembly seat would be incentivized to gather hundreds of contributions from individuals rather than dozens of contributions from wealthy donors.  Such a system has been adopted in Connecticut and Arizona.

The sponsors of the bill are Delegate Jon Cardin (D-Baltimore County) and Senator Paul Pinsky (D-Prince Georges County).

“If big campaign contributions can be taken out of the mix when it comes to setting public policy, people will be a lot more trusting of government and have more confidence that the policy was set with the public’s interest in mind,” said State Senator Paul G. Pinsky.

Delegate Jon Cardin of Baltimore County noted “The more legislators are able to focus on issues [not on fundraising], the better represented their constituents will be.”

Indeed, a recent poll conducted by Progressive Maryland Education Fund and Common Cause Maryland found that over 60% of Marylanders support a public financing system.  “The polling data provide more evidence of the unhealthy link between private money and public policy. Unfortunately, until we pass comprehensive campaign finance reform, including public funding of campaigns, our state’s legislative priorities and spending decisions will continue to be skewed away from what really matters,” said Ryan O’Donnell, Executive Director of Common Cause Maryland.

Matthew Weinstein, Baltimore Region Director for Progressive Maryland, added “Marylanders are concerned with our current system.  In fact, our poll found that 77% of Marylanders believe big campaign contributions have a corrupting influence on state lawmakers.”  Weinstein concluded by saying “We have an opportunity to restore confidence in the democratic process and hold our politicians accountable on pressing issues, including transportation policy.  Members of the Maryland General Assembly should strongly support a public financing system that will accomplish just that.”

Polling data on public financing conducted by Progressive Maryland Education Fund and Common Cause Maryland is available on-line at the following websites:
Progressive Maryland –
Common Cause Maryland –