For the last few days, we’ve been talking a lot about Sen. Tom Coburn’s crusade to remove bike/ped funding from the transportation bill — even just from the six-month extension that just passed the House and is on its way to the Senate. He’s determined to insert an amendment to take out the funds.
Ever the gentleman, Coburn had his office contact the Rails-to-Trail Conservancy, a principal supporter of Transportation Enhancement funding, since rail-trails are one of a dozen uses for the funds. Coburn’s office let RTC know that the senator would be introducing an amendment to eliminate TE funding.
Kevin Mills, vice president of policy at RTC, emphasizes that Coburn wants to eliminate the federal mandate to spend certain federal dollars on certain programs. There would no longer be dedicated funding for bike and pedestrian projects, but they would still be eligible for federal money. Without a federal mandate, however, many states hardly spend any money on active transportation at all.
Mills said that Coburn’s office left no doubt that the senator would do whatever it takes to force a vote on TE. Senate leadership is determined to pass a clean extension and wanted, like the House, to have a simple, amendment-free process. If leadership refuses to entertain Coburn’s amendment, many expect that Coburn will filibuster, though his office won’t explicitly say so.
If he does filibuster, all that means is that it’ll take 60 senators to bring the extension bill to a vote (without Coburn’s amendment). Bike advocacy groups are clearly worried about this possibility. But the facts are enough to give us hope.
The last time Coburn tried to kill TE funding (yes, he’s been at this for a while), in 2009, he offered two amendments. One would have prohibited the use of federal funds for TE projects if the Highway Trust Fund couldn’t cover unfunded highway authorizations. He had to withdraw that amendment for lack of support. The other amendment would have only eliminated the “set-aside,” or the federal mandate for all states to spend money on these programs. He lost that vote, with just 38 other senators voting with him and 59 voting to keep TE.
Now, “times are different,” Mills said. But the Congressional fervor over spending cuts still might not be enough to win the day for Sen. Coburn.
Of the 59 senators that voted to keep TE, 51 are still in the Senate. Five are Republicans, who will be under a lot of pressure to switch their votes. But then, at least one senator has pledged to switch her vote in the other direction, to save Transportation Enhancements. A couple of newly elected senators have also promised to vote to save TE.
Perhaps more importantly, many lawmakers who would love nothing more than to kill bike/ped funding once and for all are committed to voting against Coburn’s amendment. Even Sen. James Inhofe, who has been on record for years as wanting to get rid of the program, has said he won’t vote for Coburn’s amendment this time because it’s too important to get a clean extension done quickly, without introducing controversial measures that will slow it down. Knowing they’ll have their chance again in six months, even many TE opponents will put procedure before their anti-bike/ped zeal and vote the amendment down.
That should provide some comfort to cyclists, pedestrians, and others who benefit from Enhancement programs, but it just provides a little time to regroup for the big fight, in six months or whenever a longer-term bill is finally debated and voted on. Undoubtedly, the movement to kill TE will be in full swing then, and the movement to save it will have to be stronger.