Financial District: The Influence Business
The transportation lobby spent at least $45 million in Washington in the first half of the year, most of it directed at trying to influence a new transportation bill, according to an investigative report by the Center for Public Integrity (see sidebar on page 27 for information about the center). That lobby, according to the center, is composed of almost 1,800 varied entities that employ at least 2,100 lobbyists with intimate knowledge of transportation politics.
“Over the past two decades, this is the way federal transportation policy has largely been made in America – by a quasi-private club of interest groups and local governments carving out something for everyone, creating a nationwide patchwork of funded bypasses, interchanges, bridges, and rail lines with no over-arching philosophy behind it,” said the report.
Now lobbyists are focusing on reauthorization, says the report, and, “What emerges from Capitol Hill could be a more rational system. Or the cacophony could sharply worsen the ills already besetting America’s aging transport infrastructure: more gridlock on major commutes, bridges and roads in greater disrepair, lack of mass transit, and more.”
The roster of special interests paying lobbyists in 2009 to influence either the law itself or the annual appropriations decisions that are made based on the bill’s framework is formidable, says the center’s report. It includes:
More than 475 U.S. cities and 160 counties in 44 states, the vast majority of which are seeking funds for specific projects that will be chosen by Congress;
More than 55 local development authorities nationwide;
At least 65 private real estate development companies;
At least 95 transit agencies, 25 metro and regional planning organizations, a dozen individual states, and the national lobbying associations for all three groups;
More than 75 road and auto organizations, from highway builders and car manufacturers to interstate coalitions and trucking interests;
At least 65 construction and engineering groups, from cement and steel makers to domestic and foreign-owned builders;
More than 45 rail organizations, 50 shipping companies and ports, and 45 additional transportation-centric outfits, from bicycle coalitions to research groups;
More than 140 universities seeking funds for local projects or campus research centers.
According to the center hundreds of public and private groups spent more than $19 million on lobbying teams focused solely on surface transportation in the first half of the year. But because most transportation lobbyists also work on other issues for their clients that figure “drastically understates the total amounts being spent by local governments, businesses, and other interest groups around the nation.” Lobbyists don’t have to report how much they are spending on each specific issue, but the center estimates that “even if just 10 percent of their time was spent on transportation in the first half of 2009, that would add more than $26 million to the total spent on transportation lobbying, pushing the total past $45 million.”
The report identified a two-headed monster of a problem. When there was enough money in the Highway Trust Fund for almost all parties to feel their needs could be fairly well met there was a certain civility to the process of doling out funds. Now there is nowhere near enough money, and perhaps little chance of their being enough in the foreseeable future. So the battle for what there is available is more intense. At the same time everybody along the supply chain from the Highway Trust Fund to the company out at work on the road is now pushing and shoving (or lobbying) to get some of it, usually by trying to lobby someone in Washington. And since DOT has 108 programs, there are potentially 108 ways to try and get one’s hands on some federal money.
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