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McCain, Coburn say U.S. spends too much on bike paths, other non-highway projects

Posted by on August 4th, 2009 at 1:18 pm

Tom Coburn

John McCain

Seeking to position themselves in the upcoming (and ongoing) debate of a new federal transportation bill, and on the heels of an $7 billion transfer from the general fund to keep the bankrupt Highway Trust Fund solvent, Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and John McCain (R-AZ) have published a report (PDF here) that blasts Government expenditures on bike, pedestrian and other non-highway projects.

The report, titled, Out of Gas: Congress Raids the Highway Trust Fund for Pet Projects While Bridges and Roads Crumble, was released in response to a report (commissioned by Coburn and McCain, download PDF here) by the Governmental Accountability Office that $78 billion in funds from the Highway Trust Fund between 2004 and 2008 has been spent, “for purposes other than construction and maintenance of highways and bridges.”

“Flowers, bike paths, and even road-kill reduction programs, are just some of the many examples of extraneous expenditures.”

In their report, McCain and Coburn said continued bailouts of the Highway Fund and the transportation system won’t help. Instead, they write, “Congress must begin by reprioritizing funds.”

In particular, McCain and Coburn say that Congress must reign in spending on “extraneous expenditures” like, “Flowers, bike paths, and even road-kill reduction programs.”

The Senators focus a lot of their anger on the Transportation Enhancements program. TE is pot of federal money in the realm of about $800 million per year which helps to fund many bike and pedestrian related projects. In the report, McCain and Coburn specifically call out U.S. Congressman Jim Oberstar (who, as Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is front and center in pushing for a new transportation bill) as one legislator guilty of using TE funds to bring an earmark project to his constituents — an $880,000 bike and pedestrian bridge in Onamia, Minnesota.

The report lists detailed stats on how much money the federal government has spent on bike paths over the years as if McCain and Coburn are airing dirty laundry that Americans should be outraged about.

McCain and Coburn also go after $84 million spent on projects going toward safety and education of people who bike and walk. From the report:

“Efforts can be made to increase the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists, but do today’s transportation circumstances warrant 398 federally funded projects costing taxpayers $84 million?”

“Efforts can be made to increase the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists, but do today’s transportation circumstances warrant 398 federally funded projects costing taxpayers $84 million?”

McCain and Coburn list many other transportation-related projects and expenditures that should not be prioritized including a new motorcyclist safety program, highway runoff pollution mitigation, and programs to reduce roadkill.

In their conclusion, the senators write:

“No one is saying our nation should be without flowers and ferries or bike paths and boat museums. But today’s choices must be about priorities. Should those priorities include spending millions on programs that tell bikers to smile and making states use funds for the safety of their turtles instead of the safety of their citizens?”

The League of American Bicyclists has already responded to the senators’ report.

In an article published by the Energy and Environmental Policy News’ Greenwire (subscription only), LAB policy analyst Darren Flusche said the accusations from McCain and Coburn that the highway fund is being depleted by bike and ped projects is “baseless.” He pointed out that in the same GAO study, it was found the the government spent less on bike and pedestrian projects in the past 18 years than the $7 billion Congress approved last week to keep the highway trust fund alive through August.

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  • John Lascurettes August 4, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    Flusche said data from the same GAO study show that the government has spent less on bicycle and pedestrian projects over the past 18 years than the $7 billion Congress approved last week to keep the highway trust fund alive through August.

    Does anything beyond that need to be said to prove what a bunch of hot air and hooey that McCain and Coburn are spouting?

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  • drew August 4, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    This is weak, but can be expected from two senators of this ilk. I know this sounds nuts, but $84 million is nothing in the context of the overall U.S. budget. I argue that $84 million is woefully underfunded for creating liveable communities. Who wants to live in OK or AZ? Seriously, those places are just putrid.

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  • Vance Longwell August 4, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    Nice work here J. Except for a typo in the 5th paragraph, second sentence, that should read, “a pot”, and this:

    “…as if McCain and Coburn are airing dirty laundry that Americans should be outraged about.”

    I don’t think you can know this, unless you read minds.

    “No one is saying our nation should be without flowers and ferries or bike paths…”

    I don’t believe the Senator. Perhaps he’s an innocent babe in this, but it seems certain to me that there are people saying just exactly that, and it’s no good to throw gasoline on that fire regardless of the intent. How about some sensitivity, and some accountability?

    Aside from that, I agree that priorities are a bit cock-eyed right now. However, the things stated in this report don’t support this.

    Could it be? Is opposition looking for the big-time duke-out already? That’s as good as a capitulation in my mind. This just smacks of an over competent majority a little out of touch with the margin of their majority.

    The big national debate on human-powered transpo may just come from this.

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  • f5 August 4, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Drew is correct.

    I might be wrong, but doesn’t Phoenix have the worst/most sprawl of any Metro area in the nation?

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  • Emily August 4, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    I hate Coburn. This is the same guy who blocked the Mt. Hood wilderness legislation. Such a waste of human flesh.

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  • geezer August 4, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    It’s getting increasingly difficult to get worked up over right-wing straw-man arguments. (“millions on programs that tell bikers to smile”? How many millions? How many programs? Name one.) But it would be nice to be able to counter with a statistic about “non-motorists contribute X% of Federal tax revenue”. Maybe the BTA has one tabulated?

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  • Bob August 4, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    During the presidential campaign it was reported that McCain owns 13 cars. No surprise that he has an autocentric approach to life.

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  • Scott Mizée August 4, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    “No one is saying our nation should be without flowers and ferries or bike paths and boat museums. But today’s choices must be about priorities.”

    exactly. what ARE our priorities for our future and why? That is the center of the debate.

    I personally would not try to string “flowers or ferries” and “bike paths or boat museums” in the same level of functionality.

    If I live in Puget Sound, Ferries would be very important for my transportation. If I live in an inland state with no water, I would think that a bike path would be a much higher priority for daily subsistence than a boat museum…

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  • twistyaction August 4, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    Their photographs make me mad. They look like they’re thinking “F you, people who want the world to be better.” ( I CAN read minds). I’m so glad McCain was eliminated from the presidential election. I’m glad I don’t live amongst their constituencies. This encourages me to support the efforts of their opponents though.

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  • Allison August 4, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    “No one is saying our nation should be without flowers and ferries or bike paths and boat museums. But today’s choices must be about priorities.”

    Is it worth the time to point out absurdity of equating flowers and ferries? I understand both Senators are from land locked states and don’t understand that highways don’t go to all islands – but surely they’ve been to Maine, Washington, or Florida all of which have communities on islands only accessible by ferry.

    Lose a single interstate and there will be alternate routes. Lose a single ferry and a population can be completely shut off from food, health care, and emergency services.

    Ferries are not luxuries.

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  • Joel H August 4, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    If Tom Coburn is voting to send Oregon and Oklahoma’s highway tax dollars back home so each state can manage its own roads without interference from the representatives of the other, I’ll gladly accept that and I’ll just avoid going to Oklahoma.

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  • wsbob August 4, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Do Coburn and McCain ever state with any specificity, the objectives of the prioritization they have in mind would be? If they’re intent upon eliminating things they seem to regard as superficial expenditures from the transportation budget, I think they should be willing to tell us what type of national transportation system it is that they envision, that those cuts would support.

    Somewhere in that report, do they, or do they not, come out and state that the cuts they have in mind are designed to prioritize transportation budget expenditures favoring motor vehicle use over other transportation modes, even perhaps to the exclusion of non-motor vehicle transportation modes? Whether they say it or not, as their remarks are reported here, this certainly sounds like what they’re thinking.

    I can just imagine the transportation system we’d have if these two guys were in control of the budget; cars, trucks and limousines…cool! People moving about on bikes and foot…you can be over there on the gravely edge of the road…good luck suckers! Flowers, turtles and other flora and fauna living adjacent to our wonderful highway system…don’t need them cause you’ll be driving too fast to see or smell that stuff!

    Since McCain foisted his Palin as VP episode on the nation, anything he says or does deserves lots of skepticism.

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  • David E Hollingsworth August 4, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    Transportation Enhancements are problematic. There’s no clear connection between fuel tax revenue and a lot of these uses. In some cases the point is to partially mitigate for past harms; e.g. to create a bike path where a main road turned highway is no longer bike accessible, but I’ve read a lot of trail proposals (from another part of the country) where it seems more like “hey, free park money” than what I consider transportation infrastructure.

    That said, this really is small-potatoes stuff; even if you cut TE entirely, it would have no real effect on the hard decisions regarding the Highway Trust Fund insolvency. If the problem is lack of clear Federal purpose, the money here is dwarfed by “highway and bridge” spending that’s really about local purpose, mostly commuting.

    On the other hand, if the problem is with non-H&B spending as such then this really is calling national policy (“priorities”) into question. How else can USDOT accomplish the goal of increasing non-automobile modes to 15% of trips other than funding programs that encourage them and reducing funding to programs that discourage them.

    This last aspect seems to be missing among the Oberstar fans, who overlook the fact that his proposed bill would spend way more on “highways and bridges” than ever before. With no funding mechanism. Which funds do you think SDOTs will cut first?

    Case in point: guess how much Texas has spent on TE during SAFETEA-LU? $0. TxDOT cleverly delayed calls for TE projects until after the funding troubles started; when FHWA rescinded funds, the SDOTs were allowed to take from whatever obligations they desired. Finally, this spring, Texas approved $74m in TE out of ARRA funds (easy to do, since there were still pre-approved projects from before). The previous approvals were in 2001. So about $9M a year. TxDOT’s total budget? Roughly $8B for 2010. (BTW, Texas just went through a debate about highway fund “diversions.” The biggest such is…highway patrol. Apparently the ongoing costs of a highway don’t count as highway spending.)

    Anyway, the real issue is how to find the revenues for any of this, regardless of priority. Beating up on enhancements is easy (really, go look at some of the projects), but it’s a distraction from the revenue problem.

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  • Michael M. August 4, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    I don’t particularly relish being in a position to defend dinosaurs like Senators McCain or Coburn, but I think, first, your headline, Jonathan, is misleading: they aren’t saying “the U.S. spends too much on bike paths,” they are saying the Highway Trust Fund should be used for the purposes for which it was created. I agree. Second, the real problem with the Highway Trust Fund isn’t the $800 million/year that is getting diverted for various congresscritters’ pet projects (including projects of our own Blumenauer, who loves his earmarks), the real problem is laid out on page 2 of the ABC News article you linked to:

    “Congress also has refused to raise the federal fuel tax since 1993 despite inflation and sharp increases in construction costs. The federal fuel tax is 18.4 cents a gallon, or 24.3 cents for diesel.”

    U.S. consumers need to start paying the cost of the infrastructure they are using. Users of federal freeways and highways (including the trucking industry, which will pass along the cost to all of us in the form of higher prices) are no longer paying their way. We need a revamped transportation policy that takes into account the real costs (economic and environmental) of various methods for moving goods and people all over the place and provides mechanisms for funding them over the long term. Instead, we get billions of taxpayer dollars handed over to the auto industry, billions handed to car owners for trading up to newer models, and now billions more swiped from general revenue to bail out the Highway Trust Fund.

    McCain & Coburn are right — money from the Highway Trust shouldn’t be diverted to pet projects, cycling infrastructure, or frivolous beautification. (Planting flowers along a freeway is like — dare I say it? — putting lipstick on a pig. Freeways are, by definition, ugly.) But they and all members of congress from both parties who won’t raise fuel taxes so that the Highway Trust Fund is actually, you know, funded are wrong. Democrats won’t do it because they are beholden to construction and transportation industry interests and unions; Republicans won’t do it because they are beholden to the oil conglomerates.

    Honestly, Jonathan, as big a fan as I am of this blog and the work you and your colleagues do, I think this story is below your usual standard. Your slant seems as designed to inflame cyclists as do the Oregonian/KATU/K…whatever stories about bikes-vs-cars are to inflame drivers. We need a real re-examination of our whole transportation system, top-to-bottom. I think, for example, that your points about the costs of streetcars a while back were thoughtful and well-considered. We don’t need more “us-vs-them” type journalism, we don’t need to demonize or put words in the mouths of people with whom we don’t agree. We have so much of that already, and look where it’s gotten us.

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  • Will Radik August 4, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    “and after releasing the report condemning bike paths and FLOWERS, McCain and his colleagues sat down to a well-prepared meal of three kittens each.”

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  • bahueh August 4, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    folks..while I don’t agree with the idea that McCain and Coburn are is NOT the job of the federal government ot build bike lanes or bike infrastructure..that is a local and state issue…

    the federal government is in charge of maintaining the interstate system for commerce…last I checked, no bikes allowed on the interstates (for their own safety mostly).

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  • old&slow August 4, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    McCain is simply one of the biggest blowhards, media whores and hypocrites in the country. Arizona is second only to his former running mate’s state of Alaska in federal spending per capita, a fact he forgets on a daily basis when he gets on his constant soapbox about “pork”! Go to Phoenix if you want to see sprawl bought and paid for by taxpayers for water projects and freeways. STFU JOHN!

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  • Nicky V August 4, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    The more I hear about and read about McCain ever since he chose Palin last year, the more I realize what a huge bullet we dodged back in November. War hero or not, he’s just a bitter old man spewing sour grapes over things not going his way.

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  • Rollie August 4, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    $48 million is 0.7 percent of $7 billion, which is the amount of the latest band-aid for the bankrupt Highway Mistrust Fund. But McCain’s supporters are bad at math. And I suppose he’s betting that they’re easily impressed by a number in the millions. I would be too, if it were in my bank account, but in terms of what this government pisses away on a daily basis, it’s peanuts.

    $48 million is 0.007 percent of what McCain’s buddy Bush spent in Iraq.

    $48 million is about what it costs to buy one F-15 fighter jet (though I’m not sure if they still build them).

    $48 million is also the approximate amount of McCain’s net worth, though you’ll have to ask Cindy for the exact number. Just think, that money could be used to keep one family alive, or be used for bike paths. Decisions, decisions.

    Eventually these morons are going to catch up with reality and see that there is just NO WAY we are going to be able to keep all that pavement paved. No way. Even if you raise the gas tax, there isn’t enough gas left to tax, and there won’t be enough people who can afford it. Look how last year’s oil price spike bankrupted half the economy. County governments couldn’t even buy asphalt to pave roads with. Any economic recovery will end similarly, though you might throw in shortages along with the high prices.

    The old way, that kind of money, that kind of building binge, that kind of economic growth, is never coming back. But the existing roads will make lovely bike paths once all the cars are off them.

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  • jeneraldisarray August 4, 2009 at 6:36 pm


    Thank you for framing this in terms that make it perfectly clear how preposterous McCain and Coburn’s blusterings are.

    If we, as a nation, are going to stubbornly cling to an autocentric transportation infrastructure that fractures communities, depletes nonrenewable resources, and promotes sedentariness, we are confusing conservatism with foolishness.

    McCain’s commitment to eliminating “pork” is inappropriately applied to this issue. Perhaps he doesn’t realize that the presidential campaign is over and that he’s growing ever more cantankerous and out of touch.

    For chrissakes, the federal government handed out a BILLION dollars, over the course of a SINGLE week
    to people purchasing newer, more fuel-efficient autos. I wholeheartedly support that, and I can agree with those here who point out that the Highway Trust fund may not be the best source for pedestrian or bicycle project dollars, but the projects are subjectively identified as “pet” or unnecessary.

    I don’t understand the intricacies of how projects are approved for funding, but don’t they come up for a vote? Don’t the senators/representatives hash it out on the floor, debating the pros and cons? Don’t they democratically decide which receive funding?

    Sounds to me like McCain and Coburn are trying to make themselves look like virtuous crusaders in the minds of grumpy motorists and private sector constituents who could make a lot of money building even more highways.

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  • Schrauf August 4, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    bahueh, check again – bikes are allowed on the vast majority of interstates; only on most urban interstates are bikes not allowed, and for good reason, given the density of high speed ramps. But there is a whole lot of interstate highway outside of urban areas.

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  • Donna August 5, 2009 at 1:36 am

    Tom Coburn & John McCain need to shut their mouths now. They lost all credibility when they voted to bail out the financial industry. That was pork barrel spending on a breathtaking level.

    And if bike/ped projects are such a waste of money, what the heck is “Cash for Clunkers”, then? How about the government-funded HDTV converter boxes?

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  • old& slow August 5, 2009 at 7:58 am

    Donna, do you realize that a lot of the bailout money has been repaid? Goldman Sachs alone has repaid 10 billion. The dire consequences you and others predicted at the time did not happen. The banking system damn near collapsed and Obama and Geitner have not gotten a lot of credit for it. The “Cash for clunkers” program is wildly successful, basically a middle class tax cut that is getting gas gussling junkers off the road.

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  • Don August 5, 2009 at 9:52 am

    Viscous personal attacks on a person who gave so much for this country are totally unwarranted. I disagree with John McCain on this issue, but would hope most cyclist would demonstrate some class when communicating their views.

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  • […] McCain, Coburn say U.S. spends too much on bike paths, other non-highway projects BikePortland […]

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  • Daniel Ronan August 5, 2009 at 11:31 am

    So they’re against reducing road kill? Doesn’t preventing road kill keep better commuting times and accidents? Or would they prefer to have random mammals littering I-5 on top of aging, dirty, and ugly infrastructure?

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  • chelsea August 5, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    lame. did they go on to blame “welfare moms” for our supposedly high taxes? let’s throw billions of dollars at foreign wars, wallstreet, and corporate irresponsibility, but screw over the programs that actually assist people’s lives on a day to day basis (and, comparatively, are dirt cheap). these people are so out of touch with reality. (i’m anti-roadkill, and i vote.)

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  • jeneraldisarray August 5, 2009 at 3:26 pm


    Why must John McCain’s military service preclude criticism of his current political machinations?

    He no longer serves in the military and is not a spokesperson or official representative of the military. He has been, rightfully, lauded for his service in the past.

    Now, he speaks and acts as a legislator. That is his role, and we, as citizens, have every right to criticize the legislative acts that he advocates.

    Personal attacks on Senator McCain may offend your or others’ sensibilities, but it is not reasonable to demand that they not occur simply because he has an illustrious military service record.

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  • […] out how McCain still just doesn’t get it. The butt-kicked Zona senator thinks the U.S. spends too much on bike […]

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  • […] The story was picked up by BikePortland. […]

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