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Highways to Hell

I'll bet you sleep better knowing that Congress passed a highway bill, the most expensive public works legislation in history. Now the roadways that are vital to our national defense against terrorism will be fully protected! (I know that sounds like a stray bit of dialogue from Team America: World Police.)

We have just committed the staggering sum of $286.5 billion to the nation's roads through fiscal year 2009. According to a Defenders of Wildlife analysis, the bill includes a whopping 6,500 pork barrel projects (including roads to nowhere in certain congressional districts), for which $24 billion will be paid.

Colorado will receive a little more than $385 million, or $90 per capita, but let's consider Alaska. Congressman Don Young, R-Alaska, is one of the House's most proficient feeders at the public trough. He thinks the highway bill is not quite generous enough.

As Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote, "One wonders what more Young could have wanted. The bill funnels upward of $941 million to 119 earmarked projects in Alaska, including $223 million for a mile-long bridge linking an island with 50 residents to the town of Ketchikan on the mainland. Another $231 million is earmarked for a new bridge in Anchorage, to be named -- this is specified in the legislation -- Don Young's Way. If Carl Sandburg had lived to see this massive avalanche of bacon greasing its way down Capitol Hill, he'd have named Congress, not Chicago, the 'hog butcher of the world.'"

There's all kinds of giveaways like that in the highway bill, including $600,000 for horse-riding facilities in Virginia and $2.75 million for the National Packard Museum in Ohio. I like Packards as much as the next guy, but is this really public service?

In the last fiscal year, 25 million people rode Amtrak trains, but that didn't stop President Bush from "zeroing out" Amtrak in the original fiscal 2006 budget, despite an initial rush of warm, fuzzy feelings for trains after 9/11. All of Amtrak's subsidies together since the founding in 1971 don't equal one year's highway funding.

Here's typical bombast against Amtrak, from Citizens Against Government Waste: "Amtrak has failed to produce a profit since its inception in 1971, and still has not met the Congressional deadline ... to achieve self-sufficiency. As a result, it has become a black hole for taxpayer dollars."

But "self-sufficiency" is a smokescreen. Very few public transportation systems around the world are self-sufficient, but they pay massive benefits in terms of reduced congestion and better air quality.

As we saw after 9/11, and again with hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the nation needs an alternative form of transit, because highways immediately become jammed and impassible in emergencies.

Amtrak is continuing to limp along. I recently took the service to Pittsburgh, enjoying the decent service in what was a packed train, but arrived to find that this line soon was to be discontinued, and along with it, the only rail service to many small cities.

There are some interesting aspects of the highway bill. It's not all pork. For instance, there is money to provide safe passage for fish under forest roads, to control invasive species that are squeezing out natives along roadsides, and to offer alternative transportation to the cars that are choking our national parks to death.

There's even funding for a Wildlife Vehicle Collision Reduction Study. Yes, the feds are trying to figure out how to reduce roadkill. Every day, 190 million vehicles take to the road in the U.S. and kill an estimated one million animals. In Pennsylvania alone, 26,000 deer went under the wheels in one year. Vehicle collisions are the number one cause of wildlife mortality in America. Hundreds of drivers colliding with animals, or swerving to avoid them, also die every year.

It's a two-year study that should result in a "best practices" manual to reduce collisions. Sounds better than a bridge to nowhere.

Jim Motavalli is editor of E/The Environmental Magazine and a frequent contributor to The New York Times auto section. Public Eye, which usually appears in this space, will return next week.

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