Museum deflects pork perceptions: Policy wonks decry grant of $12.5M in transportation funds

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“Why are taxpayers in California and Texas and Massachusetts paying for a museum in Indianapolis?” David Boaz, executive vice president of the Washington-based Cato Institute, wrote on the think tank’s Web site in May as the bill was coalescing.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis landed the grant under the $286 billion transportation bill signed by President Bush this month. The grant was included in the bill courtesy of Rep. Julia Carson, D-Indianapolis.

“Congress constantly uses the Department of Transportation’s budget as a pot of money to deliver pork-barrel projects of dubious value,” Veronique de Rugy, a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in a June 1 column for The Washington Times.

“The federal government certainly has no business building or modernizing museums in Indiana …”

On and on, go the critics. Earlier this month, the Tampa Tribune even lumped the children’s museum in with its list of dubious federal projects, along with a study on reducing road kill.

Museum officials remain steadfast that the money is not only appropriate, but necessary.

“The museum responded to an opportunity provided by the federal government to secure funds to improve accessibility and safety for the public. Approximately 25 percent of our total visitation is from outside Indianapolis and Indiana,” said Donna Lolla, the museum’s director of communications.

Museum President and CEO Jeffrey Patchen was unavailable for comment.

Safety hazards?

What’s the danger facing children and other visitors to the museum?

Museum executives say traffic backs up on Illinois Street as visitors turn into the museum parking lot on the east side of the street, or into the museum’s parking garage and overflow lots on the west side of Illinois.

That poses a danger to motorists and to pedestrians who walk across Illinois Street, they say.

They also point to risks to children when trucks enter its main parking lot up to 10 times a day to make deliveries at its loading dock.

The transportation money will be used to build a separate freight entrance, a new “vehicular drop-off” area, and to extend an elevated pedestrian bridge that already reaches over Illinois Street from the museum parking garage on the west side of the street.

The details, however, are fuzzy.

When asked to provide plans the museum has drawn up for the projects, Lolla said there aren’t any yet.

That leaves a number of unanswered questions. For instance, it’s not clear why crossing Illinois Street creates a safety hazard for pedestrians. They need not walk on the street at all; from the museum’s parking garage, visitors can cross Illinois via the enclosed bridge.

That walkway terminates inside a courtyard at the museum’s entrance, rather than running all the way to the museum building. The courtyard is walled-off and protected from vehicle traffic.

Such an absence of detail underscores what critics of such government grants say is a lack of scrutiny as to whether projects qualify for taxpayer money.

One also could argue for a means test for recipients, they say. The museum already enjoys one of the largest endowments in the state, upwards of $250 million.

“Why is that [museum], No. 1, part of a highway bill and, No. 2, why is it part of a federal highway bill?” Cato’s Boaz asked in an IBJ interview.

Boaz argued that state and local officials using local money are in a better position to evaluate a project’s worth and tend to be more accountable to voters, unlike members of Congress, whom he called virtually untouchable.

“Some 6,000 special projects [in the transportation bill] are not getting any economic oversight” but rather are being funded based on the political power wielded by members of congress, Boaz said.

Carson was not available for comment. But she defended her efforts to obtain the grant in a letter to The Indianapolis Star, which published an editorial in July giving the museum advice on how to raise money and to avoid pork.

“I was profoundly disappointed” Carson wrote of the editorial “that reflected no appreciation for my hard work on behalf of Hoosiers and singled me out among Indiana’s delegation for allegedly stuffing the highway bill with pork.”

Carson defended the allocation to the museum, calling it the “state’s secondlargest tourist attraction” and an economic development generator.

Coveted money

The grant to The Children’s Museum comes as the Indiana Department of Transportation faces a $2 billion shortfall for a long list of road improvements planned for the next decade. The state agency expects to receive an average of $889 million annually over the next four years from the federal transportation bill.

Also hungry for federal transportation money is the city’s public transit system. For the $12.5 million The Children’s Museum received, IndyGo could buy 25 diesel-electric buses that consume less fuel and spew less soot in a city that exceeds federal air pollution limits for ozone.

State Rep. Scott Reske, D-Pendleton, who has been accustomed to such debates as former chairman of the state’s House Roads and Transportation Committee, said the money to The Children’s Museum at least is likely to stoke the institution’s economic development potential.

“Government is just naturally a big, fat animal. Hopefully, we’re the skinniest guy at the fat farm,” Reske said. “I would argue that Indiana gets less [federal funding] than most states.”

Indeed, the most infamous serving of pork in the transportation bill might be funding for a $125 million bridge to connect the sparsely populated Gravina Island with sparsely populated Ketchikan, Alaska. That appropriation was cooked up by Alaska congressman Don Young, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Being associated with such pork projects clearly is uncomfortable for Children’s Museum officials accustomed to positive press.

“We are deeply disappointed that your [editorial] views federal funding for the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis as ‘wasteful’,” Catherine Lawson, chairwoman of the museum’s board, wrote in a response to the critical editorial.

She said money for infrastructure is among the most difficult to raise, “and the museum has an institutional obligation to diversify its funding base.”

The recent federal grant was not the first for the museum. In 2002, it won $805,000 in transportation enhancement grants for projects to improve its neighborhood. The money was spent to install decorative light fixtures, new bus shelters and landscaping near the museum.

The museum wasn’t the only Hoosier institution to get a piece of the transportation-spending bill, although the other recipients’ projects were more clearly transportation-related.

Anderson University won $2 million for street improvements around the campus. Purdue University got $5.6 million toward construction of a parkway around the perimeter of campus. The University of Southern Indiana landed $3 million to acquire land for its own parkway.

And Ivy Tech State College won $5.6 million to build a transportation hub at its Indianapolis campus, just down the street from the Children’s Museum. One purpose is to help students who drive to the campus catch an IndyGo bus running to Ivy Tech’s Lawrence campus or to IUPUI, where a number of its students also attend classes during the day.

Students have long complained of a parking shortage at IUPUI, something administrators hope can be avoided by increased use of the bus.

The facility will include parking areas for cars and buses and may include retail shops, said Jeff Moore, chief operating officer at Ivy Tech.

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