Senator Coburn Targets Walking and Biking (No Kidding)

Streetsblog reports that Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) is holding up the transportation extension bill in the Senate over 1.5 percent of the funding set aside for bicycle and pedestrian projects.

This is not the first time he’s tried this trick, and last time the idea was resoundingly rejected by the Senate with 59 votes against. However, his timing could not be worse. There are tens of thousands of jobs at stake, many in an industry with an unemployment rate well above the national average (i.e., construction). This bill, a clean extension of current law, was set for rapid approval by the Senate.  THe House already passed it. So the next step was the President’s desk, and some assurance for transportation agencies and labor that investment won’t be cut off suddenly. Senator Coburn is throwing a monkeywrench into the process just as the global economy is slowing down again.

Now, to be clear, Senator Coburn is willing to stick his neck out for good causes as well as bad. He cosponsored a bill with then-Senator Obama and then-Senator McCain that would increase transparency and accountability for government investments. He’s crusaded for years against earmarks and wasteful government spending. And he’s shown courage as one of the few in his Party who stands up to scruffy, extremist anti-tax guy Grover Norquist.

But he’s wrong to tilt at this particular windmill. The Transportation Enhancements program is one of the most cost-effective policies in the federal transportation toolbox. Moving Cooler, for example, found that while pollution reduction from such investments is modest they are inexpensive and provide ample benefits to consumers vis-à-vis lower vehicle operating costs and public health. These projects also support public transportation, increasing ridership and making it more cost-effective too. So this is money well spent, which is more than can be said of much larger programs such which fund highway projects. You can verify that yourself by looking at the databases of projects (caveat: One can find some clunkers, it’s true, in any federal program).

Oh, wait. You actually can’t compare them. Transportation, as with other federal spending, seems to suffer from a bizarre rule: The larger the program, the more opaque it is. There is a national transportation enhancements database where you can research and analyze investments for this small program. There’s even a National Transit Database for the much larger transit account. What about the highway programs, which all-together are several times larger than the transit and enhancements programs combined? There should be a unified, searchable database, yes? Yet there is…nada. Zippo.

If Senator Coburn is really interested in cutting waste, why not target this largest portion of the transportation budget, the source of the infamous “bridge to nowhere”? Or at least mandate that information about investments be listed and detailed so taxpayers can track and compare projects to others in the federal portfolio?

Cutting Transportation Enhancements, a cost-effective, environmentally beneficial and wildly popular program would a dumb move. For more information about actions you can take to put a stop to it, check out the Rails-to-Trails site which is keeping a close eye on fast-moving events in the Senate.