Billboard Boondoggle? Obama Administration Halts Globe-Trotting Trips for Bureaucrats

Travel program halted after ABC News asks Transportation Secretary for answers.

June 21, 2011, 7:15 PM

June 21, 2011 — -- A $1.2 million federal highway program that sent employees on a 17-day globe-trotting journey to photograph different billboards was suspended Tuesday -- an announcement that came after ABC News alerted the U.S. Department of Transportation that it planned to air a report on the program.

"The president has been clear: We must get rid of stupid spending and pointless waste," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in an emailed statement to ABC News. "Each taxpayer dollar is precious, and there is no excuse for wasting a single one. That's why ... I have suspended this program."

LaHood said he directed the Federal Highway Administration to shut down this program until further notice "while I personally review the way taxpayer dollars have been spent."

A transportation official said Tuesday night that the decision had been made weeks ago to include it in future cuts, and was not in response to ABC News questions.

The initiative, known as the International Scan Program, has been sending federal and state transportation employees to popular foreign tourist destinations for the past decade with the goal of studying how other countries handle the challenges of running major highway networks. Other trips have been planned to study such issues as motorcycle safety, managing pavement, precast concrete, and adapting to climate change. But the program began prompting questions in recent weeks, as members of Congress learned that a group of transportation officials traveled around the globe – a nine city tour that took them to Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Great Britain -- in order to prepare a 76-page report about policies for dealing with billboard advertising.

Photos from the trip obtained by ABC News show some of the 12-member delegation toasting with wine glasses in Australia and driving the tulip-lined highways of Holland. Travel records show the group secured luxury accommodations and ate well. In Melbourne, that meant dining along the waterfront at the pricey Scusami Italian Restaurant; in Brisbane, the LAB Restaurant; in Stockholm, the five-star Fem Sma House.

The cost of the 17-day trip for bureaucrats to study billboards? Roughly $300,000, according to estimates the administration provided to Congress. (Transportation officials said roughly $40,000 of that covered the expenses of the three federal workers on the trip.)

And this was not a one-time occurrence. The program has been sending groups of federal and state workers on similar trips as often as four times a year for the past decade, at a total cost of nearly $12 million.

"Taxpayers certainly should be outraged that their money is being spent on this type of activity when our roads are falling apart, gas prices and taxes are at an all-time high, and this is where some of our highway money is going," said Tom Schatz, President of Citizens Against Government Waste.

Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, was also surprised by the extent of travel the Federal Highway Administration had engaged in, especially in an age when a great deal can be accomplished by teleconference and the Internet.

"I certainly think there's a waste of money here that this program needs to be tightened up, needs to be investigated," he said. "I think this is the type of foreign travel that should be grounded."

ABC News first contacted the Federal Highway Administration on Monday evening after obtaining a copy of a letter that House Republicans sent to the department late last week.

"We recognize that our transportation system can benefit from understanding best practices abroad," the June 17 letter to LaHood says. "But we are unable to justify to the voters in our districts such spending in the face of rising gasoline prices and federal deficits."

The letter is signed by Reps. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), Rick Crawford (R-Ark.), Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), John Carter (R-Texas), Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), Steve Southerland (R-Fl.) and Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.).

U.S. Transportation officials said the program has been co-financed with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, and that it has produced some victories for taxpayers in the past. For instance, one trip to study prefabricated bridge technologies contributed to accelerated bridge replacement in a number of locations, with some jurisdictions reporting savings as a result.

LaHood sent his statement to ABC News Tuesday evening, saying he did not believe it met the strict test the administration is using to evaluate spending programs.

"From the outset of this administration, I have urged agency personnel to be judicious and cost-conscious in the use of official travel and we will not tolerate any abuse of the public trust," he said.

While a Transportation Department spokesperson said LaHood had already identified the program for the chopping block weeks ago, a new delegation departed on a round-the-world trip June 9 to study pavement and is still underway. That group will return June 26, as scheduled, officials said.

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