Like many of the issues that get marquee attention in the partisan warfare in Congress, its symbolism outweighs the actual expense. And singling it out brings to the fore substantial philosophical differences over how to target transportation dollars and to what degree Washington should be allowed to set state priorities.
“When you have 69,000 bridges in the country that are at risk and we’re saying ‘Don’t fix this bridge but build this museum,’ it tells you Congress has lost its priorities,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
In September, Coburn briefly held up an extension of transportation funding because he objected to requiring states to spend federal dollars on projects that don’t “enhance their safety or their ability to commute.”
“I know priorities are in the eye of the beholder, but what we lack is common sense,” Coburn said. “And we lack more of it here [in Washington] than we do in any state capital, and state capitals lack it compared to city governments.”
The federal transportation enhancement program governed the spending of $927.5 million federal dollars in fiscal 2011, about 2 percent of the total $40.2 billion highway budget. Between the program’s inception in 1992 and 2010, states used $8.7 billion in enhancement funds, about 84 percent of the money made available.
“This program has been the lifeblood of the nation’s trails, biking and walking programs,” said Kevin Mills, vice president of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. “It’s wildly popular across the country.”
Locally, the money has gone toward building a bike and pedestrian bridge over Veirs Mill Road at Aspen Hill Road; restoring locks and the adjacent towpath of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal; restoring the buffalo sculptures on the Dumbarton Bridge and the lion sculptures on the Taft Bridge; transforming an abandoned rail line into the Capital Crescent Trail; and building bridges to carry the Bethesda Trolley Trail over I-270 and I-495.
Advocates for the funding mandate say they will fight to preserve it, but they may already have lost the battle. House Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.) said it won’t be included in the long-term funding bill he expects to produce this fall. And Coburn said he has received assurances on the Senate side that the spending will be made optional rather than mandatory.
“I was promised that there would be a flexibility so that states that needed to use that enhancement money on other things could use it on other things,” he said.
But Mills and other mandate supporters are counting on the more than 160 members of the bipartisan Congressional Bike Caucus to take up their cause.