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August 10th, 2009
America in Gridlock
[VIDEO] Zombie Highways: How to build a Zombie Highway

Rick Karr, Blueprint America correspondent

It’s kind of our turn, so to speak.

That’s what Phillip Wiedmeyer, a leading advocate for Birmingham’s Northern Beltline, said when I asked him why taxpayers in California or Illinois should pay for the 52-mile road through the hills north of the Alabama city. (Roughly 80 percent of the road’s cost –- or about $2.5 billion –- will be covered by taxpayers who don’t live in Alabama.) The explanation behind Wiedmeyer’s claim is complicated. According to several highway funding experts Blueprint America interviewed, it’s also inaccurate.

Wiedmeyer is head of the Coalition for Regional Transportation (CRT), a group formed last year by the Birmingham Business Alliance (formally known as the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce) to advocate for “fast-track” construction of the city’s Northern Beltline. Wiedmeyer is also a former vice president of Alabama Power. He now runs an Alabama energy research center, but his official email address remains at The Southern Company, a parent of Alabama Power. CRT is one of two groups pushing explicitly for the road; the other is the Business Alliance for Responsible Development (BARD), a coalition mostly made up of large landowners, real-estate developers, and construction firms who vehemently oppose Birmingham-area environmental groups. We initially approached BARD for a pro-Beltline interview; BARD set up our interview with Wiedmeyer instead.

Let’s look at an exchange Wiedmeyer and I had early in our interview. Note that the clip is unedited, except to cut from his camera to mine:

Wiedmeyer makes a number of questionable claims in that clip.

Starting near the top, when he says:

There’s a formula that the Appalachian Regional Commission uses for developing the highways that they designated and so under the formula we get our share of it.

Wiedmeyer implies that the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) “designated” the Northern Beltline project –- in other words, that bureaucrats or experts in Washington vetted the idea of building a 52-mile loop of highway through the countryside north of Birmingham and added it to the Appalachian Development Highway System (ADHS). That’s false. ARC experts didn’t evaluate the need for the road, according to spokesman Louis Segesvary. “It was added to the system by legislative fiat,” he said –- that is to say, when Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) added the designation to a 2004 appropriations bill, as we report in our story.

When Wiedmeyer refers to “a formula”, he’s talking about how the ARC divvies up its budget –- how much each state eligible for subsidies receives. And the Northern Beltline’s $3.327 billion budget threatens to overwhelm that formula, according to a Capitol Hill staffer with detailed knowledge of the dispute who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to comment publicly. Alabama’s share of ADHS funds prior to the authorization of the Beltline was six percent, according to the Hill staffer; with the Beltline added to the list of ADHS projects, Alabama will get 34 percent of that money. In other words, of the 13 states that are eligible for ADHS funds, one of them –- Alabama –- will eat up more than a third of the program’s available money. And again, most of that money is provided by taxpayers who live outside of the Appalachian region.

If it’s built, the Northern Beltline “will suck a lot of air out of the ADHS,” the Hill staffer said. “It’ll eat up project funds and keep other states from completing their own projects.”

That may be why House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) proposed capping the Northern Beltline’s federal funding at $500 million in his draft of the Transportation Reauthorization (PDF; see page 168). The Hill staffer said that would force Alabama officials to seek the remainder of the funding through regular Federal Highway Administration channels, which would bring more federal oversight to the project. “The idea is to put Corridor X-1 [the Northern Beltline] back into the regular order” of federal highway programs, the staffer said.

Let’s move along in the clip. Wiedmeyer later says:

[T]he gasoline that’s bought in Alabama generates a certain amount of federal excise taxes, and those go to the Highway Trust Fund, and then those funds are then used to build the roads and bridges across America. And until recently we’ve been a donor state – in other words, we sent more than what we’ve gotten back….

This is what is known in highway policy circles as “the donor-donee problem” –- and it’s long been a source of debate and the topic of think-tank reports.

As I point out in the clip, federal data do not back up Wiedmeyer’s claim. According to a Federal Highway Administration document published in 2001 (PDF available through the Government Printing Office), Alabama has occasionally been a donor state –- in 11 of the past 35 years. Experts told me that’s typical, because states receive larger subsidies when they are in the midst of big highway construction projects and smaller ones when they are merely maintaining roads that already exist.

More recently, the data show that in 2007, Alabama actually got $1.20 in highway subsidies for every dollar its drivers paid in gas taxes. Over the life of the Highway Trust Fund, the state has received a subsidy of $1.12 for every dollar in taxes paid. That ranks Alabama 28th among all states and the District of Columbia –- right in the middle of the pack.

That actually undercounts how much of a subsidy Alabama receives, according to Ronald Utt, a senior research fellow for the conservative Heritage Foundation, because it doesn’t include subsidies for Appalachian Development Highway System roads. As a result, federal money for the Northern Beltline, I-22, Alabama State Route 24, U.S. Route 72, and I-565 make Alabama even more of a donee state.

When I point out to Wiedmeyer that Alabama is not, in fact, a donor state, he quickly changes tack:

Jefferson County –- where the Northern Beltline is going to go –- we have gotten 34 cents on the dollar from what we have sent in. So we have been –- this is a donor area.

I didn’t have county-level information at hand during the interview, so afterwards, I started digging. The Federal Highway Administration doesn’t track county-by-county data. Neither does the Internal Revenue Service. I asked Wiedmeyer to provide some backup for his claim. He sent along two documents (1 || 2) to make his case.

Four highway-funding experts who I asked to review the documents didn’t find them –- or Wiedmeyer’s argument –- persuasive.

Utt said the data, which covers the 1990s, is too old to be meaningful. “As a matter of course, if there’s only data that’s that old, I don’t use it,” he said. “I’d be skeptical about it.”

Others said the data didn’t answer the underlying question of whether Alabama deserved more in federal highway subsidies. “They’re mixing apples and oranges,” said a high-ranking highway analyst who works for a watchdog agency of the U.S. Government in Washington and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly. “The documents look at state gas taxes and state highway expenditures. That has almost nothing to do with federal taxes and federal spending.”In other words, Wiedmeyer is conflating local and federal data.

Nothing in the data Wiedmeyer provided has anything to do with highway policy in Washington, according to a highway funding expert affiliated with a public land-grant university who spoke on condition of anonymity because he serves as a consultant to various states’ departments of transportation. “The bottom line is that to the extent [Birmingham-area officials] have a beef, they have a beef with the state, not the federal government,” he said.

Robert Puentes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, agreed. “I have no doubt that Jefferson County is a net donor,” Puentes wrote in an email exchange after reviewing the transcript of the interview and my email back-and-forth with Wiedmeyer. “But note that the county status is not really the result of the federal law. The federal law puts so much discretion in the hands of the state that it is really an indictment of the state.”

What is more, experts said it is in urban areas’ interest to subsidize highways in rural areas. “If every county got ‘its share’, there’s not going to be enough money to maintain roads in areas where there are fewer people,” the highway-funding expert affiliated with the land-grant university said. “It’s not at all unusual for urban areas to subsidize roads in rural areas.”

In other words, “even if you don’t live there, you still have to drive through there,” said the Heritage Foundation’s Utt.

Utt and Puentes agreed that the Northern Beltline probably does not deserve billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies.

“I am highly suspicious that the Northern Beltline will do anything positive to help the region meet any kind of economic competitiveness, environmental sustainability, or social equity goals,” Puentes wrote. “It will likely further serve to decentralize an already decentralizing metro area which flies in the face of [Wiedmeyer’s] donor/donee argument. Just giving a metro area its fair share is not enough. There needs to be rigorous cost/benefit analysis applied to all projects.”

Utt said that if the road is built, only a select group would gain. “I’ve found that behind every road project is a landowner or developer who stands to benefit,” he said.

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