WASHINGTON -- As far back as 2004, city leaders in Janesville, Wis., Rep. Paul Ryan's (R) hometown, believed that their public bus system needed a new transit center. A year later, a city-commissioned study agreed; it found the current system had outlived its usefulness. "It's an extremely critical need," explained Kathy Voskuil, the city council president, of the old facility. "It's very small. It's very antiquated."
The building, which is still in use, houses the city's fleet of 19 buses and administrative offices. It also handles the work of repairing the buses when they break down. Segments of the building are 50 years old. Its roof leaks. Its ventilation system needs an update. The 2005 study noted that the facility was "very constrained" and suggested that it would not score well if federal inspectors came knocking.
"A lot of the things don't meet current building and safety codes," said David Mumma, the city's transit director. He added that the facility cannot handle repairing more energy-efficient buses, such as ones that run on natural gas. Without a new repair shop, the city will be stuck with a bunch of gas guzzlers.
Something had to give, or someone. Janesville convinced Ryan that that someone could be Uncle Sam.
Back then, Ryan wasn't the conservative symbol of anti-earmark, anti-government spending that he is seen as now. He was someone community leaders knew they could go to for help.
Mumma says he and the then-city manager met with the congressman to ask him to seek federal funds. "He was receptive," Mumma recalls. "At that point, he asked good questions. He asked hard questions but he felt that he saw the need and was willing to sponsor it."
A few years after the bus study, Ryan received a $735,000 earmark for the bus center. At the same time, Ryan pushed for earmark reform -- including strengthening transparency rules and supporting legislation that would cut out links between earmarks and campaign contributions. By 2008, he was calling for a moratorium on earmark spending and continued to affirm his stance.
Ryan's hatred of federal spending, and his reputation as a deficit hawk, has aided his rise in the Republican Party and propelled him to become Mitt Romney's presumptive vice presidential nominee.
But as the bus center project shows, Ryan's stance against pork barrel projects and federal spending has not been so consistent. At the dawn of the Great Recession, the congressman opposed President Obama's $787 billion stimulus. The Boston Globe, however, recently reported that Ryan lobbied the president's energy secretary for millions in stimulus funds for two Wisconsin conservation groups. Ryan's lobbying proved successful, with the groups netting tens of millions in federal grant funds.
No one has found a bridge-to-nowhere in Ryan's portfolio. The bus money for his hometown suggests Ryan saw a need in his community and wanted to fill it. The problem with his earmark was that it wasn't big enough. It didn't come close to covering the new transit center's $6 to $7 million price tag.
Ryan ended up lobbying for more funds by writing letters to the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2011 and 2012.
On March 12, 2012, Ryan wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation in support of securing grant money for the transit center. "Although the City of Janesville has been making capital investments into their transit system since 1952 ... the City believes it must replace their existing operations and maintenance facility," Ryan wrote. "The City reported that the current facility lacks sufficient space to support present operations and is constrained in its current location. Therefore, I was pleased to learn that the City believes that a new facility will relieve current space constraints and operational inefficiencies."
Ryan's and the city's efforts were ultimately successful. The feds recently approved a $3.8 million grant. Along with Ryan's earmark, state and city funds, and $1.4 million from Obama's stimulus, the project appears ready for construction, Mumma says. The bus center may be one of the few projects that both Ryan and Obama were instrumental in funding.
Prior to the Tea Party uprising, federal funding of transportation projects was seen as American as apple pie. "It was basically how smaller communities in lower population states got larger public transportation projects done," Manna says. "There's been a sea change on earmarks ... It makes it more difficult for small cities such as ourselves."
City Manager Eric Levitt says Janesville has quite a few needs. The city is still dealing with the fallout of a GM plant closing, and the businesses that shuttered in its wake. Some businesses have expanded, others have moved into the county with the benefit of government incentives. The focus has been on diversifying and growing mid-size companies.
The old days -- when Ryan would allocate earmarks for his district -- are gone. Instead, officials now find ways to work around Ryan's philosophy.
"He's very helpful with his district. Anything that we go for that's existing funding, that's already been appropriated, his office will do what they can, write letters of support or offer assistance," Levitt says.
Levitt explains that officials sought and were awarded a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to test for hazardous materials in the city's numerous brownfields. They also received another grant to help jumpstart small businesses. Ryan did not write letters in support of those projects, Levitt says.
But Ryan didn't prevent a $400,000 earmark-funded waste-water treatment plant upgrade from being awarded to his hometown.
Both Levitt and Voskuil, the city council president, say that they understand Ryan's stance. It just means working a bit longer and a bit harder for federal dollars -- making sure every project proposed is as necessary as that transit center. It also means working with less, a burden for a city like Janesville, one so acutely impacted by the Great Recession. "I think we would welcome more federal money for projects," Voskuil says. "We have some needs in the community. We're stressed with some significant budget challenges."
Someday, at least, thanks to Ryan -- and President Obama -- Janesville will have an environmentally friendly bus fleet. But it may be the last project in the city for quite awhile that bears such an imprint of bipartisan cooperation.
Ryan's campaign did not return a request for comment.
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