First there was the Bridge to Nowhere, now comes the earmark from nowhere.
The project: a $10 million interchange between I-75 and Coconut Road in Lee County, Florida. Local officials did not request it but it was added to the 2005 Transportation Bill, reportedly by someone who worked for Rep. Don Young (R-AK). It was one earmark among 6,300 earmarks in the massive $286 billion highway bill signed into law three years ago.
But something extraordinary happened with this earmark. In the bill that Congress passed, the project was to widen I-75. But in the bill that went to the president, that project had been mysteriously deleted and replaced with “Coconut Rd. interchange I-75/ Lee County.” The difference between the two projects is dramatic. The original I-75 earmark for widening the highway would have provided broad public benefits, but as changed, would fund a project that would benefit a small constituency and provide narrow public benefits.
Five months before the earmark became law, local developers hosted a fundraiser for the then-Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee – you guessed it – Representative Don Young. As a result, Rep. Young netted close to $40,000 in campaign contributions, mostly from southwestern Florida developers and builders.
One of the developers that attended the fundraiser was Daniel Aronoff, who owns 4,000 acres adjacent to Coconut Road, including 1,200 acres directly east of the proposed interchange. The value of Aronoff's land would be significantly increased if Coconut Road was connected to I-75 by a new interchange.
The public has a right to know how a bill passed by both the House and Senate was mysteriously changed before arriving on the president's desk. And the wrong must be righted.
Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) asked the House Ethics Committee for an investigation six months ago, so it was an easy call to support efforts in the Senate this week to create a joint House and Senate panel to look into the matter. That initiative failed, and instead the Senate voted to direct the Justice Department to investigate how the Florida road project made its way into the 2005 highway spending bill.
And although it feels like they are coming late to the party, TCS is also pleased to see that House leadership in both parties has called for an ethics committee investigation. Last but certainly not least, Congress has voted to fix the project description so the money goes to widening and improving I-75 rather than improving some developer's bottom line.
A full investigation of this troubling matter, whether by the House Ethics Committee or the Department of Justice, is critical to restoring public trust in Washington. In the absence of an accounting and explanation, the public is left to assume the worst about the legislative process.