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McCain & Coburn: Inadvertent Transportation Reformers?

2:12 PM EST on December 9, 2009

Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) are no fans of dedicated federal spending on cleaner transportation. From bike and pedestrian safety to local transit funds, the duo has made a habit of attacking non-road projects as wasteful "pork."

John_Mccain_bike.jpgSen. John McCain (R-AZ) (Composite Photo:

And yesterday was no exception, as McCain and Coburn released a report [PDF] criticizing 100 projects being funded by the Obama administration's stimulus law. On the senators' hit list were three bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects, in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota.

The report may have backfired on critics of federal bike-ped investment by prompting a sharp rebuke from none other than Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who wrote on his blog:

We've worked hard this year to get our Recovery Act dollars out tothe states quickly and effectively. Yes, some of those projects includebike paths, a key ingredient in our livability initiative to allowpeople to live, work, and get around without a car.

We don't call that waste; we call it progress.

But the most surprising aspect of the report is how weakly the senators argue against the bike-ped projects while strongly -- and quite inadvertently -- making the case for progressive transportation reform.

For example, the McCain-Coburn report goes after Minnesota's Cedar Lane trail expansion based on a single local article that notes the project received high marks after in-depth vetting from the local metropolitan planning organization (MPO). The story's strongest critic of the bike lane, meanwhile, is a local legislator conservative enough to consider GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) "too green."

But the senators also went after a Georgia DOT project that duplicated an estimated $88,000 of work to repave a road that was already smoothed in 2007. The article they source for that criticism quotes a bike advocate who was "peeved
the money hadn’t been spent on bicycle lanes instead."

And the senators' Pennsylvania bike lane attack, also sourced from one local news report, warns that deteriorating local roads could force drivers to use road shoulders reserved for cyclists, "a dangerous condition for cyclists, pedestrians and motorists alike."

While the fact that a local official would encourage drivers to use that tactic is very troubling, the scenario is a perfect argument for a "fix-it-first" mandate that would require the state to use its federal highway funds on repairs while spending its wholly separate clean transportation aid to continue expanding bike infrastructure.

Finally, McCain and Coburn's screed against New Hampshire's use of stimulus money to buy new buses -- "New Hampshire Buys Buses It Doesn’t Need" -- makes an observation often referenced on Streetsblog Capitol Hill: Limiting states' ability to spend federal money on transit operating costs can translate into plenty of equipment, but no jobs for those who run trains and buses.

In all seriousness, McCain and Coburn undeniably intended to aim their report at all federal investments in non-auto-centric transportation; they are unlikely to ever support a "fix-it-first" requirement or transit operating aid. But in the process, they ended up exposing some of the deepest flaws in Washington's infrastructure policies.

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