Throwing $1B Into Traffic Coffer Hasn't Helped: Report

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    Nearly $1 billion in transportation funds have been used over the past 18 years on Texas projects that had little to do with improving traffic flow, a newspaper reported Sunday.

    A Fort Worth Star-Telegram analysis of state and federal records found that $997 million worth of work in Texas has fallen under a federal transportation enhancement program that started in 1991.

    The spending includes $42.7 million for the first phase of a 5-acre park being built on top of a freeway in downtown Dallas and $16.1 million to restore the Battleship Texas in the southeast Texas town of La Porte.

    The newspaper reported that state legislators often require the Texas Department of Transportation to fund pet projects through last-minute additions to the department's appropriations.

    Critics blasted the spending as wasteful in a state that increasingly relies on toll roads to try to ease big-city highways clogged by congestion.

    "What if the roof of your house was leaking, pipes were breaking, and the government tells you that you have to spend money to buy a fancy piece of art on the wall?" said Justin Keener, vice president for policy and communications at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonpartisan research institute in Austin.

    Transportation enhancement funding was part of an overhaul by Congress nearly 20 years ago, when states and major cities were accused of decades' worth of shortsighted decisions on highway money.

    The federal government directed states to spend 10 percent of their surface transportation funds on what were called enhancements. The idea was to promote a mix of uses such as hike-and-bike trails and highway landscaping. States were left to choose the projects themselves.

    "We didn't ask for them. It's a mandate," said Ted Houghton of El Paso, one of five members of the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees the state's transportation department.

    Congress could vote later this year on even more enhancement funds, which critics say have become like earmarks in that they are ways for politicians to prove to their constituents that they can win funding for their areas.

    About $20.4 million has been spent renovating 21 county courthouses in Texas, including $3.6 million for the Hill County Courthouse, which was gutted by fire in 1993.

    During a Fort Worth visit late last year, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wouldn't specify his plans for enhancement funds, but said his agency is reviewing how money is distributed.