President Bush was all smiles last week as he signed the Safe and Efficient Transportation Equity Act, but there is already talk that he should be the last president to have the opportunity.

As details of what everyone calls the highway bill dribble out - and they come out only when forced, and not easily - the bill looks less like a spending plan for the nation's transportation future and more like the latest example of the widening gap between politics and leadership.

The president signed the bill at a Caterpillar plant in Illinois, the site chosen as a photo-ready example of transportation and jobs but also because it's in the district of fellow fiscal conservative Rep. Dennis Hastert, the House majority leader.

"If we want people working in America, we got to make sure our highways and roads are modern," Bush said before putting his signature to a bill worth at least $286.4 billion over the next four years.

That is $30 billion beyond the mark Bush had once set as the limit, a veto-threatening line in the sand that was wiped away long ago. But the broad numbers in this bill obscure the deeper problems that undercut the entire planning process for federal investment in transportation infrastructure.

Such investment can't go on without support from the public and a bill that includes more than 6,300 earmarks, or special projects, is really a laughing stock for the country, a bill that by itself embodies the very worst that Congress has to offer in setting public policy.

The pork-laden highway bill that President Reagan vetoed in 1987 had 100 earmarks.

The details are only now coming out. "Don Young's Way" in Alaska gets its share of attention, but that is only one example of what's gone wrong.

In Chicago, it turns out the $832,000 for a transportation museum is going to the Children's Museum. As Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., told the Chicago Sun-Times, "This project is designed to teach them about transportation."

It may also teach them a bit about the nation's priorities and politics. The children certainly are better off in the museum than they are on Chicago's aged public transport system or its famously congested roads. 

New York State will get its deer avoidance system and, for $480,000, a refurbished 19th century warehouse along the Erie Canal.

And where is the money not going? We report this week in two separate stories on how planners for two major freight projects, the Alameda Corridor East and Chicago's CREATE plan, are looking for new sources of funding after falling far short of what they needed in the highway bill.

These are among several improvement projects aimed at improving the way people and commerce move through the country. These projects now are going begging so that a documentary film on Alaska public works can be produced, so that children in Chicago can sit in a vehicle that pretends to be moving.

If Chicago's Children's Museum really wants to teach children about transportation, curators can show them that documentary on Alaska and the state's new and uncluttered bridges.