Earmarks could return to pay for transit, Durbin says

  • Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, left, and Republican state Sen. Jim Oberweis are candidates for U.S. Senate.

    Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, left, and Republican state Sen. Jim Oberweis are candidates for U.S. Senate.

  • U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin met Wednesday with the Daily Herald editorial board.

      U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin met Wednesday with the Daily Herald editorial board. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Jim Oberweis

    Jim Oberweis

 
 
Updated 10/2/2014 11:51 AM

A return of earmarks, the much-criticized practice of setting aside federal funds for local projects, could pave the way to resolve the country's transportation crisis, Sen. Dick Durbin said.

Speaking with the Daily Herald editorial board Wednesday, Durbin noted that the Federal Highway Trust Fund is running out of money quickly but infrastructure is not a popular topic in Washington D.C.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Eliminating earmarks several years ago has "created a situation where you can't get transportation bills passed, you can't get highways funded," Durbin said.

State Sen. Jim Oberweis, a Sugar Grove Republican and Durbin's opponent on Nov. 4, is in the opposite camp. Oberweis is "opposed to bringing back earmarks," spokesman Dan Curry said.

Earmarks were attacked as pork-barrel spending before the ban. Reviving the practice with reforms such as forcing lawmakers to disclose them and requiring letters of support would limit abuse and whip up enthusiasm for infrastructure, Durbin said. The Springfield Democrat estimated he had generated about $2.56 billion in earmarks for Illinois' projects like rebuilding Lower Wacker Drive and modernizing O'Hare International Airport.

Congress has not passed a long-term transportation funding bill since the last one in 2005. The federal gas tax of 18 cents a gallon has remained the same since 1993 and with people using more fuel-efficient cars, the fund is continually facing a shortfall, the U.S. Department of Transportation has stated.

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Durbin wouldn't commit to alternatives to pay for transportation that have included raising the gas tax, indexing it, or shifting to a tax based on miles traveled.

"I will try to find a way to put an infusion of money into the federal highway trust fund and be sensitive to the fact many highway users are struggling with their paychecks and this (higher gas prices) is an expense that hits them hard," he said.

As for the practice of converting federal highways into tollways to pay for improvements and upkeep, which has occurred in some other states, Durbin said tolling freeways was a "last resort."

"I hope we can meet our obligations to make it unnecessary, but there comes a time in some places where there's no alternative ... they're just isn't enough money. We've got to make a new commitment to infrastructure."

Oberweis criticized Durbin for mismanaging finances at the federal level so that "we just patch the fund from year-to-year," Curry said on his behalf.

"We need to get our fiscal house in order so we can create a responsible funding flow to maintain our highway system for years to come. It is vitally important to maintain our highway infrastructure."

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