Since passage of the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), U.S. transportation policy has gradually strengthened metropolitan authority over federal transportation investments. Federal law requires metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs)—composed of local elected officials, transportation agency leaders, and public stakeholders—to plan and program federally funded improvements in urban regions. Yet members of the U.S. Congress have increasingly used funding bills to “earmark” funds to specific transportation projects. Derogatively called pork barreling, the practice can transfer discretion over transportation finance from metropolitan officials to members of Congress, who may hand-pick projects for funding whether or not they reflect regional transportation needs or priorities articulated in their MPOs’ long range plans (LRPs) or transportation improvement programs (TIPs).
This dissertation maps how Congressional earmarking of federal funds interacts with the metropolitan transportation planning process for programming federal investments. It examines what happens to metropolitan planning and the MPOs 2 responsible for that process when Congress earmarks projects. The study draws on 90 original interviews of representatives of metropolitan, state, and federal transportation organizations; national groups and policy organizations; Congressional committee staff; and other transportation experts. The study also reviews transportation authorization and appropriation bills, government reports, industry and policy newsletters, as well as statistical data about earmarks from government agencies and public interest organizations. Finally, to evaluate two different MPOs’ experiences with earmarking, the dissertation presents cases studies of the Dallas-Fort Worth and New York MPOs.
This study shows that planning relevant information can come quite close to the selection process for earmarks. It also documents the organizational routines and strategies, many rooted in ISTEA provisions like fiscal constraint, that MPOs and state transportation departments have established to influence earmarks beforehand or to manage earmarks post hoc when they threaten to disrupt regional commitments. Despite these measures, Congressional earmarking often overrides the very planning processes that Congress itself requires of metropolitan areas and states seeking federal transportation funds. By redistributing federal transportation dollars and unsettling planning expectations, earmarking undercuts MPOs and their institutionalization in metropolitan areas precisely when federal policy may further expand MPOs’ responsibilities.