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PART 2: Enhancements that don’t enhance

Millions from the highway trust fund are spent every year on projects that often have little to do with transportation

 

Every six years, the federal government decides how it will spend your highway tax dollars.

And in every one of the past several versions of that legislation, a set percentage of money from the highway trust fund was set aside for what the feds call “transportation enhancements.”

The American Heritage Dictionary defines an enhancement as something designed “to provide with improved, advanced, or sophisticated features … to make greater, to augment.”

So when you hear that your highway money is paying for transportation enhancements, you might think the money is paying to enhance transportation – to fix a highway, to make a bridge stronger or more durable.

But in fact, that’s not what transportation enhancements are.

They are a broad category that includes biking and hiking trails, museums, parks, landscaping or anything that improves the view and can be seen from a road. And it represents a drain of hundreds of millions of dollars out of America’s highways.

So where did these things come from?

“In 1991, the Congress passed what was called IS-TEA, the intermodal surface transportation efficiency act,” Mike Joyce of OOIDA’s Washington, DC, office said. “And that was a $217 billion authorization bill to fund the nation’s infrastructure. Included in ISTEA was a program called the transportation enhancements program – the TE program. And what that program was, was a program that authorized funding for about 17,000 projects nationwide.”

Many people involved in transportation use the figure 10 percent to describe how much of the nation’s highway funds are spent on enhancements.

Joyce says that figure is pretty accurate. But exact dollar figures – like many in the federal budget – can be hard to nail down.

Of the $217 billion authorized for the six-year ISTEA bill, Joyce says roughly a half billion dollars every year was spent on so-called transportation enhancements.

Virtually every state dips their hands into this part of the federal cookie jar. Pennsylvania is no exception. In fact, a quick look through the state’s list of recent “transportation enhancements” reveals many such expenditures of federal road money in the state.

For example, the Irwin Borough Streetscape and Gateways Project in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.

Paying to ‘pretty up the place’

Streetscapes are a popular item for highway funds. The term refers to beautification – it can include landscaped or brick medians, landscaping along the side of a roadway, nicer light poles or other improvements designed to beautify a road.

On the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission Web site, the agency says the Irwin Borough project includes “landscaping, lighting, signage, and other aesthetic treatments” at six places the commission officials referred to as “identified community gateway locations.”

The reason the money is being spent at the site: It’s identified as part of the historic Lincoln Highway corridor, one of the first identified, national, cross-country highways – a road not used for coast-to-coast commerce for more than three-quarters of a century.

However, the project covered just six blocks of the road – essentially, all city streets. And the price tag to federal taxpayers just for phase 1 - $1.963 million, approved in 2006.

The streetscape cash was listed along with hundreds of other projects on the National Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse Web site. The group says it provides information to communities that want to, in their

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