What Do White Squirrels, Bike Paths and Corvette Simulators Have to Do With the FAA Funding Stalemate?

  • $110,804 for an observation area for white squirrels in Tennessee.
  • $250,000 for the construction of a twin dragons gateway to the Chinatown area in Los Angeles.
  • $198,000 for a Corvette simulator at a museum in Kentucky.
  • $3.4 million for a turtle and wildlife passage in Florida.

These are examples that Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., took to the Senate floor today to give more weight to his argument that the FAA/highway bill should not be passed in its current form in the Senate.

A key Democrat accused Coburn of obstructionism, but Coburn argued the examples show states across the country are using millions of dollars of federal funds in odd ways, while in many cases bridges are in need of fixing. Coburn deemed that questionable and unnecessary.

“I will not give a unanimous consent as my right as a senator to the United States for us to continue to spend billions of dollars on things that are not a priority when this country’s struggling to survive,” Coburn said on the Senate floor. “If that means that the highway transportation bill does not get approved, so be it. But there has to be a point in this country when we change direction and we start meeting the obligations that are put before us. And the number-one obligation is to start spending money where it does the most good, and quit spending money that we don’t have on things that we don’t absolutely need.”

Coburn is trying to repeal the federal mandate in the House-passed bill that requires states to spend 10 percent of funding provided by the Surface Transportation Program for “Transportation Enhancement Activities.” Transportation enhancement activities can include museums, pedestrian walkways, bike paths, landscaping and scenic beautification. Or, as Coburn pointed out today, they can actually fund things like the white squirrel observation deck and the Corvette simulator.

“I’m not saying they’re necessarily bad,” Coburn said. “But when we have bridges falling down in this country and concrete, like the summer before last in Oklahoma, falling out of an interstate highway bridge, injuring somebody, falling into their car as they drive under it, I would think we would want to repair the 146,000 bridges rather than spend money redecorating a sign.”

Coburn’s amendment would provide states and communities the flexibility to enhance safety rather than beautification and to meet local needs at their discretion, his office said.

“All we’re saying is if your state wants to continue to spend money on something other than safety and bridges and roads, fine. You can,” Coburn said. “But don’t make those of us that already have a big problem with safety have to spend money on something that doesn’t protect our citizens, doesn’t enhance their highways, by spending money on something that’s called an enhancement but doesn’t enhance their safety or their ability to commute.”

During s Twitter town hall today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was asked if Congress will reauthorize funds for the FAA bill that is tied to the highway bill – and took the opportunity to lay into Coburn over the most recent threat of a partial shutdown over the FAA funding, which expires Friday.

“We have a Republican senator here that is holding them both up,” Reid said. “Why? Because he’s mad. Because he thinks that there should be no money spent on bike paths.

“I said, ‘OK, I’ll give you a vote,’ and he said, ‘No I don’t want a vote – I just want it in the bill,’” Reid said. “And so we’ve gotten so far now that people won’t even take a vote. They are holding everything up just because they want to hold things up.”

Reid said he would go out on the Senate floor and ask for consent to pass the two bills this afternoon.

“We’ll keep pushing until we get this done,” Reid said. “We can’t have another FAA shutdown.”

Coburn suggested that the Senate split up the two bills – the FAA and the highway bill – but it is not clear at this point what will be done.