Union Tribune

March 16, 2003

Highway agency's hard road
Programs may be in peril as Congress reviews funding


WASHINGTON When Eric Gonzalez's motorcycle skidded along Interstate 5 and rammed into a concrete divider almost a year ago, the accident near Chula Vista further blackened a record that included numerous speeding tickets, reckless driving and driving without a license.

The 18-year-old San Ysidro resident now spends weekends warning teens about the dangers of bad driving. But he had no clue that his San Diego State University-sponsored speeches will soon get snatched up in a debate over one of the most politically charged, heavily lobbied and far-reaching domestic issues on Capitol Hill.

This spring, Congress will take a fresh look at what to spend in the coming six years on highways, railroads, mass transit and aviation. Much attention will focus on big questions such as why more travelers don't ride subways and where to find more money to build roads.

The discussion over what to spend on programs such as SDSU's, which are intended to prevent highway deaths and injuries, will be more muted. But the discussion will illustrate how political connections, campaign contributions and coming elections can take precedence over programs that protect the nation's traveling public.

In February 2002, the White House announced it would increase spending on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency responsible for road and auto safety, from $433.5 million this fiscal year to $665 million in the fiscal year that starts in October.

On its face, President Bush's proposal looked like a generous, 53 percent increase for an office that for years has suffered from being overworked and underfunded. But a closer look reveals that the White House's largesse is largely illusory; the agency would continue to get barely 1 percent of the federal transportation budget.

"We're not really seeing extra money," said Katherine Montgomery, director of the highway agency's Office of Fiscal Services. "It just appears that it's extra money."

Montgomery said that $222 million of the increase is for programs her agency already administers, but the money had been provided through a different agency. Now that money is merely being shifted to the highway agency.

"We were pretty disappointed to hear that," said Barbara Harsha, director for the Governors Highway Safety Association. "There's a lot of rhetoric, but when it comes down to money, it just isn't a priority."

In addition, Bush this year cut nearly $1.5 million from grants that the highway agency sends states to make roads safer. One of those grants pays for the "Cool Operator" program at SDSU's California Institute of Transportation Safety.

"Cool Operator" educates teen-agers and adults with bad driving records, often by featuring speakers who have killed or injured others while driving.

"While the students are most likely to roll their eyes when a police officer talks to them, when they hear from someone who killed someone, they start thinking, 'It can happen to anyone,' " said Sheila Sarkar, who directs the institute, which got $700,000 in highway agency grants for "Cool Operator."

"I am applying for a new grant, but I'm very afraid that I may not be funded because of the budget cuts," she added.

Gonzalez, the Chula Vista man who participates in Sarkar's program, broke his leg in three places in his February 2002 accident. He once got a ticket for driving 105 mph.

"They ask a lot of questions, like what were the consequences for me from all my tickets?" Gonzalez said. "I think I'm probably convincing them to drive safely."

At least 10 other programs in San Diego County use the grants. San Diego police use one to discourage drunken driving at the border. The Indian Health Council Inc. uses a grant to encourage tribal members to use seat belts. Chula Vista police use theirs to encourage high schoolers to drive safely.

California got nearly $15 million of the roughly $162 million that the federal highway agency awarded for safety programs last year. There are separate grants for high-priority programs such as those that battle drunken driving and encourage seat-belt use, but that may change.

Bush wants to roll several of those grants into one. The idea is to cut paperwork for the state transportation safety offices that hand out grants. The change may also mean less oversight from Washington.

Safety advocates fear less oversight may mean that some money will go to untested programs, or that not enough will go to the critical ones, such as those for drunken driving.

"If we lump (all the money) together, does a third go to drunk driving and a third to safety belts?" said Jackie Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "We're all for flexibility, but we don't want to send money to states for ineffective programs."

Marlene Markison, acting associate administrator for the highway agency's Office of Injury Control Operations and Resources, said states "may use . . . the grants to support a full range of highway safety programs." But she would not say if critical programs will be guaranteed a certain amount of money.

Since 1980, the agency has sustained a 30 percent cut in its staff and, when adjusted for inflation, a 35 percent decrease in its budget. At the same time, the number of cars nationwide has jumped at least 38 percent.

The highway safety agency is not as prominent as, say, the Federal Aviation Administration, and it faces budgetary constraints and political pressure.

Car manufacturers, car dealers and road contractors who do not like their industries being too closely regulated are big contributors to Congress. Those groups gave a combined $16.2 million to House and Senate lawmakers for the 2002 election.

Harsha said, "These lobbies are certainly much bigger and more influential than the lots of little groups that make up the highway safety lobby."