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Public Statements

Highway Trust Fund Restoration

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I am expecting Senator McCain on the Senate floor anytime, but I think I will begin.

The Government Accountability Office released a report yesterday that talked about the highway trust fund. What they noted is that over the last 4 years $78 billion of that trust fund has been spent on things other than highways, bridges, and roads.

Some of the things it has been spent on nobody would have any question. But here we find ourselves--the second time in a year--trying to bail out the trust fund, and we are going to get to decide whether we are going to steal it from our kids or steal it from the stimulus bill, which will actually make it much more stimulative than the money that is there.

But we find ourselves in trouble. When this trust fund was first set up, it was set up during the Eisenhower administration. It was designed to build the Interstate Highway System and help us with roads and bridges and secondary roads and bridges throughout the country. What it has morphed into is that a large percentage of it now does not go for any of that.

So we find ourselves in the midst of a recession--with last year having high gas prices which depressed the money going into the fund, and with a recession now, with decreasing revenues going into the fund--and we have all these projects that we know are priorities for us that need to be fixed.

The other thing we learned from this report is that 13,000 people in this country a year die because of bad roads, bad bridges, and bad highways.
So it would seem to me the highway trust fund moneys ought to be spent to eliminate those 13,000 deaths, and the priority ought to be about roads, bridges, and highways.

I will put into the Record many other items where the money is spent. Ten percent is mandated for highway beautification. Well, I think that is great--if we do not have a trust fund that is broken, and we do not have 200,000 bridges in the country that structurally have some defect, 93,000 of which are seriously structurally defective. I think it is important that we turn our attention to priorities that will support that.

We are going to have a lot of votes on this today.

I am supportive of us doing what we need to do for the trust fund. I am also supportive of making sure the priorities of the trust funds are about bridges, roads, and highways. Because of what happened in Tulsa, OK, yesterday, we have a man in ICU. Somebody hit a bridge with a car, and he was driving under the bridge in another lane, and chunks of concrete fell through his windshield and seriously injured him. Our highway department knew we had a problem with that bridge--not going under it or over it, but the foundation was suspect in terms of the concrete underlying it, and the uprights. So the dollars that went to build a bicycle path and to plant flowers along the highways and the dollars that went to put in walking paths means that guy is in the hospital today because the dollars didn't go for what they were intended.

So when we have had $78 billion over the last 4 years that didn't go for roads, highways, and bridges, and instead went for things that aren't going to enhance safety or help save 13,000 lives a year, America has to ask: What are your priorities?

I commend to my colleagues the GAO report: ``Highway Trust Fund Expenditures on Purposes Other Than Construction and Maintenance of Highways and Bridges During Fiscal Years 2004-2008'' on the GAO Web site at

Mr. President, I make the point that as they look at this, there are important things for us to consider. We know that had we passed a better stimulus bill, we would be doing twice as much now in terms of fixing the real problems in this country in terms of transportation infrastructure. But we didn't. We passed a stimulus bill that created transfer payments on 70 percent of it, and 20 percent of it may be considered to be stimulative. So the hope is that, as we go forward--and we are going to bail this out--what we really need to do is, let's have our own money. In Oklahoma, we have never gotten 100 percent back. The highest was last year. When I came to Congress, we were getting back 74 cents out of every dollar. If we can keep that money, we can get more done with it than what we get done through the trust fund now. That may be one solution to ultimately getting us out of this situation.

Mr. INHOFE. If the Senator will yield, it is a real problem we have here. I remember, up until about 5 years ago, our trust fund took care of our needs. The problem we had was not just the fact that as it goes up, the proceeds go down, but that we got involved in things that had nothing to do with transportation. It used to be bridges, transportation, and highways. It was adequate at that time, but the hitchhikers would say there is a big surplus, so let's tap into that, and now we have all these things having nothing to do with transportation.

Mr. McCAIN. Will the Senator yield?

Mr. COBURN. Yes, but first I have one other point.

In the last 20 years, we have built 25 transportation museums rather than the money going to highways. Remember the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed? We are putting money into museums, and I wonder if we are going to build a museum about the collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis. We are putting money into museums instead of making sure the roads and bridges--especially the bridges--are safe in this country. Our priorities are messed up, and the American people know that. Hopefully, we can redirect transportation dollars to true transportation projects, not to the aesthetics that we cannot afford now, even though they may be nice, and, No. 2, are causing additional deaths on our highways.

Mr. McCAIN. Will the Senator yield for a question?

Mr. COBURN. Yes.

Mr. McCAIN. Couldn't it also be traced to earmarks and porkbarrel and ``demonstration projects''? Couldn't it be traced to the fundamental fact that the 1982 highway bill included 10 demonstration projects totalling $386 million? The 1987 bill had 152 porkbarrel projects, totaling $1.4 billion. The 1991 bill had 538 locations with specific porkbarrel projects, totaling $6.1 billion. The 1998 highway bill had 1,850 earmark projects, totaling $9.3 billion, and then in 2005 had 5,634 earmark projects, totaling $21.6 billion. How can anybody who calls himself or herself a fiscal conservative stand by and allow this kind of thing to happen?

And what happens? There was $2.3 billion for landscaping enhancements along, of all places, the Ronald Reagan Freeway; $480,000 to rehabilitate a historic warehouse along the Erie Canal; $600,000 for the construction of horse-riding trails in Virginia; $2.5 million for the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Corridor; $400,000 to rehabilitate and redesign the Erie Canal Museum; $400,000 for a jogging, bicycle, and trolley trail in Columbus, GA. How in the world can those things be justified and then expect our constituents not to rise up?

Mr. COBURN. The answer to the Senator's question is, they can't. There is no question that there are certain priorities. What has happened is, as we try to address priorities for individual States, because the States don't get their money back--and there may be a great project in there, and along comes a lousy one.

I just make the point that we have our eye off the ball. The eye needs to go back. All you have to do is go read the story that happened in Tulsa, OK, yesterday. Had we been applying money to transportation instead of nontransportation through this trust fund, that gentleman probably would not be in the hospital today. A 700-pound piece of concrete fell through his windshield, trapping him in the car. We don't just have a problem of not enough money in the trust fund, our problem is that the money that goes out doesn't go for the real things the trust fund was designed to do in the first place.

I will restate, and then I will yield back. We have to do one of two things. Until this country gets out of the financial damage it is in, first, we have to make sure the money is spent on transportation projects, real transportation projects, to save some of those 13,000 who are being lost because we are not fixing roads, bridges, and highways. Second, let's eliminate the thing and let the States keep their money, and we will figure out how to spend it at home. In Oklahoma, we have never gotten a square deal yet.

Mr. McCAIN. Will the Senator yield for a question?

Mr. COBURN. I am happy to.

Mr. McCAIN. Does the Senator know how much we are spending on highway and transportation projects in the stimulus, the $787 billion stimulus bill?

Mr. COBURN. It could be around 4 or 5 percent. Senator Inhofe will know the answer to that.

Mr. INHOFE. The answer is 3.5 percent, and an additional 3.5 percent in military construction, totaling about 7 percent.

Mr. McCAIN. Does the ranking member know how much of that has been spent in dollars?

Mr. INHOFE. Sixty-seven percent has not been obligated, so 33 percent is obligated.

Mr. McCAIN. I thank the Senator.

Mr. COBURN. Let me add, also, that if you go to and to, you will find that as of last week--I don't know what it is this week--only $78 billion of the whole stimulus package has actually been spent. More of it has been obligated but not actually spent. I think there is another $150 billion obligated out of that. That is one of the reasons we are not seeing the effect of the stimulus. One, it is not going to stimulate things, and it is not getting to where we need it.

Mr. INHOFE. If the Senator will yield, that is another reason the Vitter amendment and Ensign amendment are good. You are talking about money that is out there, not recoverable. Let's try to direct it where we can get something from it. I had an amendment during the stimulus bill to try to triple
the amount of money that would go into actual construction, and they would not take it up.


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