It was just over a month ago when Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn blocked a transportation bill. He said that the government is spending ten percent of federal transportation aid dollars on projects he deems wasteful. Coburn’s aim was to force changes that would allow the states to use their full allotment on roads and bridges and tunnels, and not be forced by regulation to set aside monies for enhancement programs.
As examples of waste, Coburn cited some previous projects he claims were funded only because of the federal enhancement requirement, such as a giant roadside coffee pot and constructing tunnels for turtle.
The onerous “transportation enhancement” is a new GOP meme and cause célèbre. Their rhetoric has been repeated insistently by from the Senate floor, in public appearances and in news releases. The requirement causes states to dedicate a portion of their federal highway aid allotment on enhancement programs that include everything from landscaping to sidewalks, and according to Republicans has paid for the coffee pot and for turtle tunnels.
The only problem is that this isn’t true. As politicians tend to do when making a case, the GOP lawmakers have exaggerated and misrepresented the projects that benefitted from the requirement.
Coburn’s action was the shot across the bow. "We are not pouring asphalt, we are not laying concrete, we are not decreasing congestion, and we are not increasing safety," Coburn complained. He produced a list of 39 projects that he said exemplify extravagance at a time when states don't have enough money to repair structurally deficient bridges.
Coburn’s examples were cherry picked from the more than 25,000 projects that have received money since Congress established the enhancement set-aside nearly two decades ago… like the Lincoln Highway 200-Mile Roadside Museum in south-central Pennsylvania which was described as receiving $300,000 in 2004 for signs, murals, colorful vintage gas pumps painted by local artists and refurbishing of a former roadside snack stand from 1927 that's shaped like a giant coffee pot.
Sen. McCain worked from Coburn's list two weeks ago when he offered an amendment to narrow the types of projects eligible for enhancement funds, stating "Pennsylvania ranks first out of all states for deficient bridges. Yet it seems to be more important to furbish large roadside coffee pots."
But this is where the lie surfaces. There were no transportation funds involved in the coffee pot restoration. The entire $100K for that part of the project was raised locally. Olga Herbert, the executive director for the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor stated "We did not use any of this $300,000 award for anything to do with the coffee pot," she said. "It's interesting that nobody from Senator Coburn's office called me about this."
Also on Coburn's shame list but not receiving any federal enhancement aid set aside were a lighthouse renovation in Toledo, Ohio, a saddle tree factory in Madison, IN, landscaping for a junkyard in Aiken, SC, and $16.2 million intended to restore the Battleship Texas. DOT turned that application down, but Coburn still pointed his boney, accusing finger.
McCain, however, initially failed to mention a $198,000 grant in 2007 to the National Corvette Museum in Warren County, KY. McCain is a former Corvette owner. Later the Senator said that since a Corvette simulator really didn’t have anything to do with transportation, he ”felt compelled to add this."
Next Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell got into the act, making a statement criticizing President Barack Obama's request for $50 billion for highways, bridges and airport runways as part of his jobs plan. "Don't tell the people of Kentucky they need to finance every turtle tunnel and solar panel company on some bureaucrat's wish list in order to get their bridges fixed." Not to be outdone, the other Senator from Kentucky said "Something is seriously wrong with government when we are forcing state governments to spend 10 percent of their transportation money on turtle tunnels, white squirrel parks, and movie theaters."
The Florida “turtle tunnels” are actually a traffic safety project. Turtles are not the only wildlife using the tunnels. Beavers, otters, alligators and snakes also use the culverts, making driving safer for motorists who were swerving to avoid the critters.
To boot that, it isn’t even the enhancement set asides that funded the project. Florida used economic stimulus funds, yet Coburn's list insists that Florida has spent $3.4 million on the project, implies the money comes from federal highway aid, and that $6 million more will be needed to finish the project.
Wrong again. The project was completed under budget at $3 million in September 2010.
The list of lies goes on. The Grand Old Party that so reveres that great conservative St. Ronnie that they have proposed to have Reagan’s likeness carved onto Mt. Rushmore alongside Washington, Jefferson, Roosvelt and Lincoln now spends more time telling lies, saying NO and labeling as socialist a president with policies more conservative than Reagan.
Go figure… then remember to vote.