Last-Minute Deal Preserves Bike/Ped Funding. But For How Long?

UPDATED with comments from Sen. Tom Coburn’s staff.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has relented on his push to strip Transportation Enhancement funding from the six-month surface transportation extension, clearing the way for Senate passage last night and a White House signature today.

Sen. Barbara Boxer says dedicated funding for bike/ped projects is preserved, though Sen. Coburn appears satisfied that Transportation Enhancements is dead. Photo: AP

In exchange for releasing his stranglehold on the Senate (and the estimated 80,000 workers that could lose their jobs, at least temporarily, if the FAA bill lapsed) Coburn will get to insert his language into the long-term bill, when this latest extension expires.

According to CQ Today, Coburn said, “We’ve got an agreement that the next bill will be an opt-out for people on enhancements.” James Inhofe, the top Republican on the EPW committee which wrote the bill, “seems to have played a key role in brokering the deal,” CQ Today reports.

After the vote, Boxer quibbled with Coburn’s description of what will be in the next highway bill. Boxer said she and Inhofe had worked out “reforms” in the transportation enhancements section of the bill and met with Coburn to discuss them before the deal was worked out.

“We felt he would be pleased with the reforms,” she said. “It gives flexibility, without doing damage to the important programs in there.”

Boxer said Coburn made clear that he was “not going to vote for any more extensions” but allowed the current highway funding extension to move forward. “There’s not an opt-out,” she said. “You’ll see what we did. But no, there’s no opt-out. . . . There’s still dedicated funding. It gives more flexibility to the states as to how they will use that funding… It’s flexibility for the states within the transportation enhancements program.”

Clearly, Boxer is in a tight spot, having to placate some of the most conservative members of the Senate while also satisfying the active transportation advocates, in her state and around the country, who have held her feet to the fire on saving dedicated funds for bike/ped programs.

Sen. Coburn’s staff, meanwhile, is alarmed by Boxer’s comments. With the Senate out of session for the week, Coburn is back in Oklahoma and his aides are conferring with him. “Senator Boxer made an agreement with him to include the opt-out provision,” one staffer told Streetsblog. “The fact that she went on the record saying something that is in opposition to their agreement is concerning.”

Streetsblog could not reach the EPW Committee for comment before this story was posted, but we’ll update it if we hear more about exactly what was decided. It may just be a shuffling around of programs, with the essentials of bike/ped dedicated funding maintained, just in a different form.

Coburn was under intense pressure from senators on both sides of the aisle yesterday who wanted to avoid a weekend session, as well as the partial shutdown of the aviation system and the furlough of thousands of workers.

State DOTs and the transportation construction industry have been urging Congress for two years now to pass a long-term bill to restore some certainty to the business. They say the constant extensions create a chilling effect on new projects. Still, given the looming possibility of no extension at all, they are welcoming the six-month extension at current funding levels.

Voting against the extension last night were some of the most conservative members of the Senate. In addition to Sen. Coburn, Jim DeMint (R-SC), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Mike Lee (R-UT), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Pat  Toomey (R-PA).