Roadkill Provisions of Infrastructure Bill: Needed or Just a Boondoggle?

To paraphrase Forrest Gump’s mother, congressional spending measures are “like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re gonna get.”  This is no less true with respect the recent infrastructure bill, H.R. 3684, that passed the U.S. Senate on August 10 in engrossed amendment form. 

Buried in the 2,740-page bill is section 11123, entitled “Wildlife Crossing  Safety.”  Under this provision, Congress has declared collisions between wildlife and vehicles to be a “present danger” to “human safety” and “wildlife survival.”  According to the bill, there are more than a million such collisions each year at a total annual cost of $8.4 billion.  These numbers were derived from an August 2008 Report to Congress by the DOT’s Federal Highway Administration.  Therefore, the bill amends the Federal-Aid Highway Act to add a new section 171 requiring the Secretary of Transportation to establish a pilot program that will reduce the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions.  Entities eligible for grants under this program include state highway agencies, certain local government entities and Indian tribes.  Such entities can also partner with NGO’s.

The primary basis upon which money under this program will be given out is whether the proposed project “is likely to protect motorists and wildlife by reducing the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions and improve habitat connectivity for terrestrial and aquatic species.”    The standard is no more specific than that.  What additional insight on this issue the pilot program is expected to convey is unclear.  The 2008 Report to Congress was a 254-page work that contained elaborate recommendations on mitigation methods to influence human driving behavior, including large signs, seasonal warning signs, detection systems, on-board animal detectors, increased lighting, vegetation and snow removal to improve visibility, reflective collars for animals, and reduced speed limits.  That report also contained multiple recommendations to influence animal behavior, including deer reflectors and mirrors, deer whistles, olfactory repellents, hazing, intercept feeding and increased median width.

Given the detail of the 2008 Report, it is unclear why this issue needs to be studied further or what other recommendations would make a difference.   Do “look out for deer” signs need to be bigger?  Do deer need to be given lighted crosswalks or spray-painted international orange?  Nonetheless, a new section 172 to the Federal-Aid Highway Act directs the Secretary to do yet another report and to update the already extensive 2008 Report.  That section also directs the Secretary to develop a standardized methodology for “collecting and reporting spatially accurate wildlife collision and carcass data for the National Highway System.”  In simpler terms, we are to have a national roadkill database.

Furthermore, inspection standards for bridges and tunnels will not be limited to whether they are likely to fall down or collapse.  Determinations as to “replacement or rehabilitation of bridges and tunnels” will also “include measures to enable safe and unimpeded movement for terrestrial and aquatic species.”  That is,  it is not enough that vehicles can safely pass over a bridge or through a tunnel, it will now be necessary to determine whether animals or fish can travel under or around such structures.

If all of this seems silly and unnecessary, the price tag is sobering.  Section 11101(d) of the bill appropriates $350 million over the next five fiscal years for the pilot program alone.  (The Senate actually showed a glimmer of fiscal restraint since the appropriation in the House version was $500 million over five years.)  In the world of government spending, perhaps this is small.  After all (so goes the urban legend), Senator Everett Dirksen once supposedly remarked, “a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”   Nonetheless, given the wide number of unresolved problems in society, it is hard to believe that studying additional ways to avoid hitting a deer with an automobile and collecting roadkill statistics on a national level is worth spending $350 million in taxpayer funds.  But, to complete the Forrest Gump analogy, “stupid is as stupid does.”