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House panel approves $48 million for transport projects in Central, Eastern Washington; none for North Idaho as Fulcher opts out

UPDATED: Mon., June 14, 2021

Rep. Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho listens to testimony on June 29 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., during the House Natural Resources Committee hearing on the police response in Lafayette Square.   (Bonnie Cash/Associated Press)
Rep. Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho listens to testimony on June 29 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., during the House Natural Resources Committee hearing on the police response in Lafayette Square.  (Bonnie Cash/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – A transportation funding bill approved by a House panel Thursday would send roughly $48 million to central and Eastern Washington for road and bridge improvements requested by lawmakers, but a disagreement among House Republicans about the new earmark process means North Idaho won’t see any such federal money.

Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane and Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside, both Republicans, would get about $20 million each for projects in their Eastern and central Washington districts, while a project in Wenatchee would receive more than $8 million requested by Rep. Kim Schrier, a Democrat whose district spans the Cascades.

The funds are part of nearly $5.7 billion in “member-designated projects,” a revamped system of earmarks the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee included in the “INVEST in America Act,” a $547 billion bill to reauthorize the federal government’s yearly transportation spending for the next five years. Washington would receive a total of roughly $190.8 million, or an average of about $19 million for each of the state’s 10 congressional districts.

GOP Rep. Russ Fulcher of Idaho told The Spokesman-Review in May he opposed the return of earmarks because of concerns that they could pave the way for frivolous federal spending. Congress effectively banned the practice a decade ago after a rash of corruption cases tied to lawmakers from both parties steered money to their districts in exchange for favors or bribes.

Fulcher also cited an informal survey his office conducted in which 87% of nearly 10,000 of his constituents said they opposed the return of earmarks.

When House and Senate committees revived earmarks earlier this year, they put various guardrails in place aimed at improving transparency and preventing the abuse of the process, which proponents say puts federal spending in the hands of elected officials who are accountable to voters, rather than unelected bureaucrats in federal agencies. Nearly all House Democrats and a little more than half of House Republicans requested funding through the Transportation and Infrastructure or Appropriations committees.

Idaho’s 2nd district – which covers the eastern half of the state and most of Boise and is represented by GOP Rep. Mike Simpson – would receive nearly $17 million through the package. In a statement, Simpson emphasized that opting out of the process “would not have reduced federal spending by one penny.”

“The money would have instead gone to another project in a different state or to a federal bureaucracy to be spent at its discretion,” Simpson said. “In the end, I can either seek these projects for Idaho or allow the funding to go to another state. I would rather see that funding end up in Idaho to improve our communities.”

About 77% of bridges and 87% of pavement in Idaho are in good or fair condition, according to the state’s Department of Transportation.

The money set aside for the transportation-related earmarks comes from the Highway Trust Fund, financed mainly by federal gas taxes paid in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Before it can be signed into law by the president, the House bill that includes these earmarks will need to be reconciled with its Senate counterpart. While the total cost of the final bill will likely be lower than the House version, the earmarks represent about 1% of the $547 billion price tag and are expected to remain in the legislation.

Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, told House lawmakers in April they could each get up to $20 million for their districts. Some members submitted proposals within those parameters while others swung for the fences.

McMorris Rodgers submitted requests for 33 projects worth a total of $142 million and received just over $20 million for six projects, ranging from $350,000 to replace a bridge over the Touchet River in Waitsburg to $6.75 million to relocate part of Spotted Road near Spokane International Airport.

Newhouse requested less than $28 million for five projects and received $19.4 million to fund all five, although the most expensive of his requests – $14.4 million to widen Highway 12 between the Snake River and Walla Walla – was only partly funded.

Simpson asked for a total of just over $20 million for six projects and got five approved. The only project that didn’t make the cut would have repaired pavement on Highway 27 between I-84 and the city of Burley.

Schrier requested more than $892 million – more than any other Democrat – for 29 projects, including a massive $665 million proposal to widen State Route 18. In an interview in May, she told The Spokesman-Review she didn’t expect that project to be fully funded through an earmark but hoped to secure partial funding or at least draw attention to the project’s importance.

McMorris Rodgers, Newhouse and most other House lawmakers requested a separate set of earmarks through the House Appropriations Committee. Those projects are being vetted through the annual appropriations process in which Congress signs off on the federal government’s spending.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has revived its earmarking process this year, but the two Senate panels that together craft the upper chamber’s version of the surface transportation bill are not including earmarks in that legislation. Most GOP senators, including Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, oppose the earmark process, while Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho has said he would only participate if significant changes are made.

Here are all of the projects requested by McMorris Rodgers, Newhouse and Simpson that would be funded through the House surface transportation bill:

Lawmaker ProjectCityAmount
McMorris RodgersPalouse River Bridge ReplacementColfax$6,000,000
McMorris RodgersSW Mojonnier Road ReconstructionCollege Place$2,453,574
McMorris RodgersBigelow Gulch and Sullivan Road Corridor Spokane Valley$2,650,000
McMorris RodgersCity of Waitsburg Highway 12 Preston Bridge ReplacementWaitsburg $350,000
McMorris RodgersFerry County Kettle River Road RehabilitationCurlew$1,797,000
McMorris RodgersSpokane Airport Spotted Road ProjectSpokane $6,750,000
McMorris Rodgers Total$20,000,574
NewhouseSR 410/Rock Creek Vic - Chronic Environmental Deficiency

Naches

$3,562,000
NewhouseUS 12 Naches Vic to Yakima Vic - Intersection Safety ImprovementsNaches$1,452,000
NewhouseUS 97/Jones Rd - Intersection ImprovementsWapato$4,464,000
NewhouseUS Highway 12 Phase 8 Final Design and Right of Way AcquisitionTouchet$5,965,931
NewhouseYakima County, East-West Corridor Phase II ProjectYakima$4,000,000
Newhouse Total$19,443,931
Simpson1st Street ReconstructionAmmon$5,375,700
SimpsonCenter Street Railroad Bridge UnderpassPocatello$4,277,000
SimpsonFort Hall Connect- Upgrade of Ross Fork RoadFort Hall$3,500,000
SimpsonI-5B (US-30) McCammon IC TO Old US-91McCammon$1,716,660
SimpsonState Street Premium Corridor, Part 2, Boise Area, Valley Regional TransitBoise & Garden City$2,000,000
Simpson Total$16,869,360

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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