The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

“Nutty” Earmark Rejected By Florida County

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


Some times you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.  In the case of Coconut Road in Florida, even though a member of Congress felt like wasting taxpayer dollars on a highway interchange project at Coconut Road and I-75, taxpayers in Lee County, Florida did not want and the Lee County Metropolitan Planning Commission eventually voted against.

The story started in 2005 when the Highway Bill (Transportation Equity Act — A Legacy for Users [TEA-LU]) was being debated and ultimately passed.  During the enrollment process of the bill (when basic mistakes are cleaned up before the bill is sent to the White House), an earmark for $10 million for Lee and Collier Counties, Florida was quietly changed from “widening and improvements in I-75” to the Coconut Road Interchange/ I-75.  With more than 6,500 earmarks in the bill, this “minor” change went virtually unnoticed.  In fact, the local member of Congress, Connie Mack (R-Fla.), did not even know about the project. 

The culprit behind this earmark was Rep. Don Young (D-Alaska), former Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure.  Yup, that’s right, a member of Congress from Alaska was requesting an earmark for a transportation project in Florida.  Speculation swirled that Young was set to retire (the collective fingers of millions of taxpayers were crossed) and was zeroing in on the perfect retirement community.  Unfortunately, the motivation was more nefarious.

The Washington Post pointed out on August 17, 2007 that, “As documented over the past few months by the Naples Daily News, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who served as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during the 2005 re-write of the national highway bill, took in $40,000 in campaign contributions at an event in February 2005 hosted by the developer.  By the time the highway bill went to the White House in August 2005, a $10 million earmark had appeared for a new interchange off of I-75, known as the Coconut Road exchange.  The developer [Michael Aronoff] owned property near the proposed interchange and would presumably build new homes on that land.”

A member of Congress taking money from a developer and securing an earmark is unfortunately not breaking news in the world of government waste, although the long reach of the member is unusual.  But, a funny thing happened on the way to this earmark.  On August 17, the Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization voted 10-3 to return the $10 million to the federal government and ask for the money to instead be spent for its original purpose, to widen I-75.

Congratulations to Lee County.  The remaining question is whether or not more local governments will have the guts to stand up to Congress’ porkers.

David Williams

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