WASHINGTON -- Republican senators failed Tuesday in their third effort in less than two months to eliminate federal money for bike paths, walking trails and other transportation enhancement projects.
An amendment by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was defeated by a vote of 60 to 38. It would have forbidden the government from spending any money on enhancement projects and re-directed funds to bridge repairs.
Paul and other critics say the program is bankrolling extravagant projects, such as a giant roadside coffee-pot shaped building, movie theaters and turtle tunnels.
But in many cases, these projects have been exaggerated or misrepresented. The coffee pot, for example, didn't receive transportation aid; the movie theater is really a driver's education classroom, and the turtle tunnels are a wildlife eco-passage that allows animals to cross a busy Florida highway. Proponents of the project say motorists were swerving to avoid killing turtles, alligators and other critters.
Paul continued the misrepresentation Tuesday, telling senators "this amendment simply takes funds from beautification and puts them into bridges."
Landscaping and scenic beautification is just one of 12 areas that receive money through the program. Paul's amendment would have barred states from using federal transportation money for any one of the dozen categories, including bike and walking paths, bike lanes and pedestrian safety projects.
The money for transportation enhancements – $927 million for fiscal year 2011, which ended Sept. 30 – is the largest source of federal funds for bicycling projects. It represents 2 percent of the nation's highway funds.
While states can use the federal aid for any of the 12 categories, bike and walking projects tend to receive about half the funds, supporters of the program said.
A national network of bicycle groups urged their members over the past week to contact their senators and ask them to vote against Paul's amendment.
A similar effort by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in September would have eliminated the requirement that states set aside a portion of their transportation funds for enhancements. He withdrew his amendment. Another effort in October by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, failed as well. His proposal would have retained funding for bike projects but would have eliminated funding for seven other enhancement project categories.
Like Paul, the senators said states should be able to spend all their highway aid on roads and bridges if they want, especially because many states have a backlog of road projects and structurally deficient bridges that need to be repaired or replaced.
The issue is expected to come up again in the next several months as the House and Senate craft long-term transportation plans. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has said the House bill will eliminate the requirement that states set aside a portion of their funding for enhancements.
Pointing to states that have suffered flooding, Mica told reporters last month that highway officials would like to be able to use the money for other priorities.
Jack Basso, chief operating officer of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which represents state highway agencies, said the stipulation that states set aside enhancement dollars has survived for nearly two decades because it's popular with local officials and metropolitan planning organizations.
"I wouldn't be telling you the straight story if I said every state is gloriously in love with this program and thinks we ought to support it. But in this business, it takes 35 states to make policy and this has been voted on once or twice and it has been sustained as something to retain," Basso said, referring to the association's board meetings.
Tim Blumenthal, president of People for Bikes, which tries to get more federal support for biking, said bike and walking paths are also popular with the public, which makes them difficult to oppose.
That's why senators "are doing a lot of spinning here to make it sound like it's a waste of money," Blumenthal said.