Falls Church, Va. It seemed like a good idea, perhaps one that could be emulated nationwide: a fleet of electric buses to ease congestion in one of Washington’s traffic-choked suburbs in an environmentally friendly way.
Congress provided earmarks of nearly $2 million to make it happen. But about 10 years later, the buses serving the small, prosperous city of Falls Church aren’t electric, their usage has leveled off at half of what was projected, and the city is considering scrapping the system.
Taxpayers subsidize the service at a whopping $8 per ride, in most cases enough to pay for a cab ride.
The GEORGE system has become another demonstration of the risks of congressional earmarks — spending provisions in the law that dole out money for specific projects in their home states or districts.
“That little earmark is a microcosm of the problem,” said Leslie Paige, spokesman for Citizens Against Government Waste.
After two contractors failed to provide suitable clean-running electric buses for the system, the city ended up with diesel buses — albeit ones equipped to reduce emissions.
And at many points on the route, the GEORGE bus stops overlap or are less than a block away from regional bus routes run by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, known as Metro. The city contracts with the authority to run its system and sometimes uses Metro buses in place of GEORGE buses.
Earmarks have become a particularly contentious part of the federal budget process. President Obama campaigned against earmark spending, but last month signed a $410 billion spending package that included 8,000 earmarks costing $5.5 billion.
Transportation projects are an earmarking favorite. A 2007 report from the Transportation Department’s inspector general found that in 2006, Congress had taken an $847 million federal program for bus funding and earmarked $814 million of it for pet projects, leaving almost nothing to be allocated under the traditional merit-based funding formula.
Meanwhile, Falls Church is deciding whether to continue the GEORGE service. A city of about 12,000 inside the Capital Beltway, it would have to pay as much as $600,000 to maintain service next year, according to city manager Wyatt Shields. Bus systems in the nearby suburbs of Fairfax, Alexandria and Arlington provide an average subsidy of $2 per ride or less. Shields recommends eliminating the service.
But the system still has supporters, and the city council is looking at ways to make the system more efficient.
Its biggest booster, City Councilman David Snyder, said the earmarks will only waste taxpayer money if the city gives up on GEORGE. “It’s up to us (on the city council) now to make sure the earmark isn’t wasted,” he said.
The idea for GEORGE came from a former mayor in the 1990s who was impressed by electric buses he rode in Chattanooga, Tenn.
A working group was formed to study feasibility. But it was a series of congressional earmarks, shepherded by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., that got the project off the ground. Moran is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which controls earmark spending.
Service began in December 2002, with the buses primarily delivering Falls Church commuters to two Metro subway stations on opposite ends of the city. Initial projections estimated ridership of about 144,000 annually. But ridership has never exceeded 75,000 and now stands at about 70,000.
Paige said GEORGE demonstrates many of the problems with earmarks. Among them is the temptation to throw good money after bad, with local governments on the hook for heavy operating subsidies to justify the money spent to establish the system.
Moran, a defender of the earmark system who has requested a $2 million earmark in the upcoming budget cycle for neighboring Arlington County’s bus service, said the federal government can no longer continue subsidizing the GEORGE service, but he doesn’t see the earmark as a waste.
“We gave it our best shot,” he said. “If we hadn’t had this financial depression or recession we probably could have continued. But in tough fiscal times like this, you have to make tough choices. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea.”