Each year, members of Congress use the appropriations bills through which the federal government allocates its annual budget to bestow gifts upon their constituents: grants "earmarked" to individual cities, communities or institutions (including colleges and universities) for specific purposes, outside the competitive process that federal agencies usually use to award funds.
Every six years, lawmakers get a special treat, drafting legislation to extend the primary law that governs federal surface transportation programs, which provides another opportunity to lavish money directly on favored friends. This year, colleges benefited in a big way from the $286 billion transportation measure, pulling in nearly half a billion dollars in what have come to be known as "pork barrel" funds.
The money flows to colleges and universities across the country either in direct ways -- grants to do research or build campus roads or facilities -- or indirect ones, such as to construct or renovate streets that connect them to their communities. A half-dozen colleges received money to build parking garages on or near their campuses, while about a dozen others got grants to build "intermodal" facilities -- buildings that bring together different modes of transportation, such as buses, trains or cars.
Some institutions reaped large windfalls: Ten universities received $16 million apiece to operate "national university transportation centers," which are designed to "advance significantly transportation research on critical national transportation issues and to expand the workforce of transportation professionals." Others got help in smaller doses: Manhattan Community College in New York received $500,000 for a parking facility near its campus, and Berea College was awarded $480,000 to conduct a "comprehensive traffic study."
In all, colleges and universities received $496 million in the legislation, according to an analysis of H.R. 3, the "Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users," by Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit group that seeks to limit federal spending. The actual figure could be somewhat higher than that, because some projects that benefit colleges may not mention them by name, or it could be slightly lower, as colleges might play little or no role in a handful of the projects that do mention them by name.
But the basic accuracy of the Citizens Against Government Waste figure was confirmed by Inside Higher Ed's own analysis of a database compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense, another anti-tax group, of more than 6,000 earmarks, totaling more than $24 billion, that are in the transportation bill over all. (You can use the database to search for your college.)
The $500 million or so that the bill provides to more than 100 institutions of higher education is just a fraction of the overall pork barrel total, but it shows that colleges have learned how to grab a piece of the federal largess, says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. It and other antitax groups have urged President Bush to veto the measure, but he plans to sign it today at a ceremony in Illinois.
"Like a lot of small towns and communities, universities have their hand out, and they're either actively seeking these funds or they're happy to get them," Schatz says. "They've been playing in the pork game for some time, in the appropriations process, and this is just another opportunity to get money."
Higher education officials, however, say colleges are doing what any wise steward of an institution's future would do: take advantage of available avenues to solve problems and get things done.
"It's a fact of life that our members feel they need to tap into this, as any other entrepreneurial unit would do," says Edward M. Elmendorf, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, who emphasized that the association itself did not encourage or discourage colleges from seeking earmarks. "In an environment where state appropropriations have substantially decreased, the institutions are not sitting on their hands. They have to go out and look for new sources of money."
Diana Ho, a transportation consultant to the Los Angeles Community College District, says that the district turned to federal lawmakers only after a plan to finance several projects through local bonds and the regional transportation authority collapsed because state funds were tight.
"I happened to run into a member [of Congress], Lucille Roybal-Allard, and briefed her about the situation, and she suggested I talk to her staff, and it went from there," says Ho. "When the local process did not work out, it made a lot of sense to take this process to ongoing system that is already in place that our colleges were not that aware of. This is an avenue of funding to assist higher education that is already in place, and we are just beginning to take advantage of or participate in it."
As passed, the transportation bill provides funds for several projects for the L.A. district, including $1.25 million to make it easier for students and other pedestrians to get to bus and rapid transit stops near Los Angeles City College, $836,000 to do the same for Pierce College, and $209,000 for a transit center at Los Angeles Mission College.
Where the Money Is
Colleges, not surprisingly, benefit most in the parts of the bill that are aimed at furthering transportation research. The law measure contains $20 million to help the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory create the Joint Research Materials Institute, which is designed to "integrate a broad range of transportation research capabilities, including sensor technologies, asphalt materials, carbon fiber research, fuel cells, nanotechnology, and other automotive research efforts," according to a news release the university issued last month about the award.
The release credits Tennessee's U.S. senators, Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, and Lamar Alexander, a former president of the university, for arranging the funding. "We must continue developing new transportation technologies that will effectively support the needs of our growing economy," Frist said. "I'm pleased that UT is committed to researching innovative ways of confronting future infrastructure challenges, and confident this funding will help keep UT-Knoxville at the forefront of transportation research."
The measure provides another $8 million to the Knoxville campus for its National Transportation Research Center.
Ten other universities -- Marshall, Montana State, Northwestern and Portland State Universities and the Universities of Alaska, Minnesota-Twin Cities, Missouri at Columbia, Oklahoma, Vermont and Wisconsin at Madison -- received $16 million each over the next five years for national research centers on their campuses.
Like Tennessee, most of those campuses had friends in high places; the heads of the transportation committees in both the House and Senate (Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens, both Republicans) hail from Alaska, and Portland State issued a news release thanking Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who was on the joint Senate-House conference committee that completed work on the legislation.
Some of the research projects supported by the transportation legislation are the sort that tend to raise eyebrows among those looking for signs of misplaced priorities in a bill that had the original purpose of improving the nation's federal highway system. South Dakota School of Mines receives $1.5 million for an "asphalt reclamation study;" the University of Northern Iowa was awarded $1 million for the Native Roadside Vegetation Enhancement Center.
The legislation provides tens of millions of dollars in funds for building projects and new transit systems at colleges, too. It awards $15 million, for example, for a project to build a new bypass road to ease congestion around Starkville, Miss., that will create a new southern entrance to Mississippi State University, and $800,000 to improve the highway off-ramp to the Desert Museum at California's Imperial Valley College.
Numerous other campuses, including Lipscomb University in Tennessee ($3.172 million), the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey ($1.6 million), Auburn University ($4 million) and the University of the Incarnate Word in Texas ($2 million) will get new parking facilities through the bill. Bucknell University will see $1 million in improvements to its main intersection, and three campuses in the University of Alabama system will get a total of $22 million for "intermodal" facilities.
Schatz, of the government waste group, questions exactly how most of these projects relate to the central purpose of the transportation legislation. "The question is how much, if anything, this has to do with our interstate highway system and the interstate gas tax that pays for it," he says. The answer, he suggests, is very little.
Ho, the community college transportation consultant, rejects the view that the projects aren't closely scrutinized or don't have value. "Congressional members' staffs do a very thorough vetting process based on how valid the projects are and how many of their constituents they'll help, and you have to get through not only that but the committee and the Congress," she says.