Checkpoint follies

Candidate Barack Obama vowed to "change" the kind of Washington politics as usual that saw important spending needs go unmet, while lower-priority projects in the home states or districts of powerful congressmen got lavished with cash.

No more.

And when it came to the supposedly vital $787 billion "economic stimulus" bill approved last winter, President Obama was even more specific: He banned "earmarks," which lawmakers routinely slip into bills to pay for pet projects, and told agencies to "develop transparent, merit-based selection criteria" for spending.

Many of the nation's 163 border checkpoints, known as land ports, are more than 40 years old and in need of upgrades and repairs. There's a lot more work to be done than money to complete it.

To prioritize, officials scored each project on traffic volume, security vulnerability, construction needs and other factors. The resulting list represents "an objective and fair method for prioritizing projects," officials wrote in a 2005 summary.

That's the process the Obama administration described in a news release announcing $720 million in stimulus money for border crossings.

The results?

Customs officials have refused to release their master list, arguing it was just a starting point and could be misunderstood.

So much for "transparency" and "being able to look everything up on the Internet."

But The Associated Press was able to learn that one of the nation's busiest border checkpoints, in Laredo, Texas, serving more than 55,000 travelers and 4,200 trucks a day (those trucks carrying $116 billion in freight), was rated among the government's highest priorities.

And Laredo could sure use the "stimulus." Unemployment in the metropolitan area is 9.4 percent.

Meantime, a busy border station in Nogales, in Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's home state of Arizona, has required repairs for years but was not rated among the neediest projects on the list reviewed by The AP.

Down at the bottom of the list, the tiny border checkpoint in Westhope, N.D., which serves about 73 people a day, and an even sleepier checkpoint along the Canadian border at Whitetail, Mont., that sees only about three travelers a day, ranked among the lowest-priority projects on the Homeland Security list.

You can see this coming, can't you?

The Whitetail project, which involves building a border station the size and cost of a Hollywood mansion, will get $15 million. The unneeded project benefited from two key allies, Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester. Both pressed Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano to finance projects in their state. Sen. Tester's office boasted of that effort in an April news release, crediting Sen. Baucus and his seat at the head of the "powerful Senate Finance Committee."

Whitetail, an unincorporated town with a population of 71, saw only about $63,000 in freight cross its border last year. County unemployment is at an enviable 4 percent.

The equally low-priority checkpoint in Westhope, N.D., will also get nearly $15 million for renovations.

Byron Dorgan, the three-term Democratic senator who serves as a senior member of the powerful Senate Appropriations committee, is from ... wait a minute, we had it here, somewhere. Oh. North Dakota.

The border station at Nogales, in Ms. Napolitano's home state is getting $199 million, five times more than any other border station. Ms. Napolitano credited her lobbying as Arizona governor for getting the project near the front of the line.

And how much money will go to the busiest station of them all, at Laredo, in George W. Bush's mostly Republican state of Texas?

Nada. Zip. Nothing.

It's a new day in Washington, all right. It's all about keeping America safe now, and judging projects based on which will do the most good -- not which powerful senator or congressman comes sniffing around for his pork.

That was back in the bad old days. Before the "change."