FACT CHECK: Lawmakers spin funding tall tales
WASHINGTON — It's an outrageous tale: The federal government spends one out of every $10 in transportation aid on wasteful projects such as refurbishing a giant roadside coffee pot and constructing turtle tunnels.
That's what Republican lawmakers have said repeatedly in recent weeks in the Senate, in public appearances and in news releases. They are trying to eliminate a requirement that states use a portion of their highway aid for "transportation enhancements," 12 categories of projects from bike and walking paths to scenic overlooks and landscaping.
But it's not exactly true.
To make their case, lawmakers have exaggerated and misrepresented some projects that have received aid.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., raised the issue last month when he temporarily blocked action on a transportation bill. He said he wanted to allow state transportation departments to use all their federal aid on basic needs such as roads, bridges and tunnels, instead of setting some aside for enhancements.
"We are not pouring asphalt, we are not laying concrete, we are not decreasing congestion, and we are not increasing safety," Coburn complained. He produced a list of 39 projects that he said exemplify extravagance at a time when states don't have enough money to repair structurally deficient bridges.
Coburn picked his examples from the more than 25,000 projects that have received money since Congress established the enhancement set-aside nearly two decades ago.
First on the list: the Lincoln Highway 200-Mile Roadside Museum in south-central Pennsylvania. It was described as receiving $300,000 in 2004 for signs, murals, colorful vintage gas pumps painted by local artists and refurbishing of a former roadside snack stand from 1927 that's shaped like a giant coffee pot.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was apparently working from Coburn's list two weeks ago when he offered an amendment to narrow the types of projects eligible for enhancement funds.
"Pennsylvania ranks first out of all states for deficient bridges. Yet it seems to be more important to furbish large roadside coffee pots," McCain said.
But no transportation aid was spent on the coffee pot's $100,000 restoration, said Olga Herbert, executive director of the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor. The money was raised entirely from preservation and civic organizations and local supporters.
"We did not use any of this $300,000 award for anything to do with the coffee pot," she said. "It's interesting that nobody from Senator Coburn's office called me about this."
Also on Coburn's list was a lighthouse renovation in the harbor of Toledo, Ohio, that would be partly funded with $500,000 in federal money. Actually, no transportation dollars have been authorized or awarded. The lighthouse renovation is among projects community officials tentatively hope to get around to in 2019.
Coburn's list includes a 1996 grant for preservation of a "factory used to make saddletrees" — the foundation of a riding saddle — in Madison, Ind. Not mentioned is that the grant wouldn't qualify for enhancement money under current program rules, according to Transportation Department officials.
The Texas Department of Transportation is described as spending $16.2 million in enhancement money to restore the Battleship Texas, docked in the Houston Ship Channel. If so, they weren't federal transportation dollars. U.S. transportation officials said an application for the money was turned down.
The list cited landscaping to screen a junkyard in Aiken, S.C. After checking with state and local authorities, federal officials said the project was canceled years ago and again, no funds were awarded.
"We picked some of the more interesting and exciting ones to get our colleagues' attention," McCain acknowledged during his effort to pass his amendment.
McCain said he was reluctant to mention a $198,000 grant in 2007 to the National Corvette Museum in Warren County, Ky., to build a simulator theater because he fondly remembers owning a Corvette once. But then he mentioned it anyway.
"Since a National Corvette Museum simulator theater has very little to do with transportation enhancement, I felt compelled to add this," he said.
The simulator theater is really a driver-education classroom for free driving classes for older people and teenagers, not a chance to pretend to be behind the wheel of a Corvette, museum officials said.
But what has provoked the most scorn from enhancement critics are the "turtle tunnels" near Tallahassee, Fla.
"Don't tell the people of Kentucky they need to finance every turtle tunnel and solar panel company on some bureaucrat's wish list in order to get their bridges fixed," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said last month. His comment came in a speech criticizing President Barack Obama's request for $50 billion for highways, bridges and airport runways as part of his jobs plan.
Kentucky's other senator, Republican Rand Paul, protested last week: "Something is seriously wrong with government when we are forcing state governments to spend 10 percent of their transportation money on turtle tunnels, white squirrel parks, and movie theaters."
Florida transportation officials used federal aid to build mile-long barrier walls on either side of U.S. 27, a busy four-lane highway along the shore of Lake Jackson, and three culverts that run underneath the road. The lake is teeming with wildlife, but the critters were getting flattened by cars as they tried to cross to the vegetation on the other side.
While turtle deaths prompted the project, the culverts are being used by many other species, including beavers, otters, alligators and snakes. They make driving safer for motorists who were swerving to avoid turtles and alligators, said Matt Aresco, the former Florida State University Ph.D. student who led a grassroots campaign for the project.
"It's a significant safety issue," he said.
The project used economic stimulus funds rather than regularly budgeted transportation money. Coburn's list, provided to reporters and posted on his Senate website, said Florida plans to spend $3.4 million on the project, but it will require $6 million more to finish "and it was unclear how long it will take to get the project built."
Actually, the project was finished in September 2010 and came in under budget at $3 million, according to the Transportation Department.
GOP members of Congress also have said repeatedly that states are required to spend 10 percent of their transportation aid on enhancements. Actually, the set-aside for enhancements is equal to 10 percent of the aid states receive through one transportation program, not their total federal aid. Enhancement funds amounted to $927 million in the past year, 2 percent of the $46 billion the government spent on highway programs.