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Especially a transportation project...itís such a visible form of government spending, they may either look the other way or make an excuse.

Earmarks die hard

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During election season, Republicans vowed to crack down on earmarks -- spending for projects in legislators' own districts.

But as Emma Jacobs reports for the Innovation Trail, the impulse to send money home is still strong.

(Support for the Innovation Trail comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Innovation Trail is a collaboration between five upstate public media outlets, reporting about New York's innovation economy.)

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Dennis Eshbaugh shows a reporter around the Holiday Valley ski resort, which he runs in Cattaraugus County in Western New York.

It’s a perfect day for skiing. Light snow is falling and the parking lot is busy at the start of a holiday weekend.

“Every car that comes here travels on [Route] 219 ultimately,” he explains. “Either from the north or the south. From where we’re standing right here we’re actually about a quarter of a mile to injunction of holiday valley road and 219. (Old 219.) Correct.”

Eshbaugh specifies Old 219  because he leads the county’s Route 219 Association. Eshbaugh’s group wants to expand the road to four lanes from Buffalo all the way to the Pennsylvania border. Right now, from just north of where we are, it’s still a two lane road that goes through the middle of every small town on route. There are stop lights. 30mph speed limits.

“This is a place that’s losing jobs and population because of the lack of the ability to come and go.”

Meg Lauerman is involved in regional planning for this part of the state. She says the 40 -odd year old highway project was finally moving again, until the state’s fiscal crisis worsened.

“We have this huge project that’s so important to our area that’s frozen right now,” Lauerman says. “Nothing has been moving forward for about 6 months.”

One way to move forward, Lauerman hopes, is to get federal legislators interested in setting aside more money for the project.
Congressman, Tom Reed is a supporter of the project, but  says, “I don’t see it going forward as an earmark.”

Due to a whimsy of electoral law, Reed was also one of the few budget-slashing freshman congressmen to go to Washington early enough to vote for a Republican ban on earmarking money for hometown projects. But when pressed, Reed’s position is more nuanced than just no earmarks.

“It’s not going to come up because it’s Tom Reed’s project on route 219 in Cattaraugus County. It’s the route 219 project and we will be a voice to say why this will be a project we should fund,” Reed says.

“You know let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for a second, that in their minds, may not think it’s an earmark, but in reality they are,” says, David Williams of government watchdog, Citizens Against Government Waste.

You can be on the record publicly for a project but once you take that advocacy into committee in the budget process, that’s an earmark, Williams says. Williams says it’s not surprising that when asked, Reed’s office sticks by the Congressman’s definition.

“We may see more and more of this, where it’s really tempting. Especially a transportation project. Because it’s such a visible form of government spending, they may either look the other way or make an excuse as to why it is not an earmark,” Williams says.

219 booster, Meg Lauerman, drives north to point out where the four lanes shrink to two. Lauerman, who’s from Buffalo, works with a band of local route 219 associations across New York and Pennsylvania.

“Right now because next section isn’t started, this literally it ends in the woods,” Lauerman says.

Lauerman’s coalition wants to see the four lane highway go beyond the Pennsylvania border. They want to connect Buffalo straight to Miami, a sort of second East Coast corridor they call “Continental One.”

Lauerman says towns to the north that already have the four lane road are benefitting from quicker travel and the extra traffic. She wants the federal government to make a bet that if you build it, economic growth will come.  But that’s a tough sell to the Department of Transportation for Reed and other members of Congress.

Political blogs took tea partier, Michelle Bachman to task last fall for saying she thought road infrastructure projects shouldn’t be considered earmarks — forgetting, of course the most famous earmark of all, the bridge to nowhere.

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