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Transportation, Housing And Urban Development, And Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, D.C.


Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I wish to talk about all three of the amendments I plan on getting votes on. I will give a little summary on amendment No. 2371.

The way the highway trust fund spending is set up now is that if we send your State $100 million, $10 million of that $100 million has to be spent on enhancement projects, regardless of the condition of your roads, regardless of the condition of your highways, regardless of the condition of the bridges in your State. All this does is allow States to not have to follow that in this, No. 1, tough economic time; No. 2, when we know highway deaths related to roads and bridges alone account for 13,000 deaths a year. So we will intend to ask for a vote on that. It does not prohibit the States from doing these enhancements, much as was claimed in debate yesterday but, rather, gives an opportunity for the States to make good value judgments about what is in the best interests of their State in terms of highways, roads, and bridges.


Amendment No. 2372 is an amendment which requires us to prioritize. Unbeknownst to most Americans, money that is collected from the purchase of your gasoline has been used--$28 million of it, as a matter of fact--to fund transportation museums. That may be a great use in a time when we are not in the economic situation and circumstances we find ourselves in today. What this amendment does is say, until we get out of the trouble we are in and until the trust fund gets back to where it needs to be, we shouldn't be prioritizing and we shouldn't be earmarking money for transportation museums. It goes back to common sense. The money we are collecting in gas taxes ought to be used to repair and build highways and bridges and roads, not fund museums.

As a matter of fact, several of the museums that have been funded in the last 5 years are already closed. They came through earmarks. We spent millions of dollars. Nobody had any interest in them; consequently, they were closed. In this one bill we have one that has been earmarked. It may be the right thing to do, but now is not the right time to do it.

So what this amendment simply does is say that for this year--this year only--we are not going to allow lower priority items such as a transportation museum to displace money that could be used to enhance somebody's safety or protect their life. I don't know what the outcome on this will be, but I think it will be a telling statement for the Congress that if we decide museums are more important than somebody's life--more important--the priority is there--it will show a disconnect in this Congress as to whether we are willing to make good priorities with Americans' taxpayer dollars or do we continue to ignore common sense and spend the money the way some or one or many individuals would like to do it, without regard to what the original intended purpose for the money was and without regard to the very serious situation we find with our roads, highways, and bridges.

Senator McCain and I asked the Government Accountability Office to look at where the money was spent over the last 4 years prior to this year, and $3.7 billion of highway money went for transportation enhancements, of which museums are one. Granted, it wasn't a lot of money, but when you take $38 million and apply it to defective bridges in Oklahoma, what you can do is fix 75 of our defective bridges--bridges that are putting people's lives at risk and money that Oklahomans paid out that ought to come back and take care of the problems we have. The same for Colorado. The same for Missouri. The same for all these States. We are behind.

We have 137,000 or so bridges that are suspect in this country. We recently had an individual in Tulsa, OK, who was seriously injured when a chunk of concrete fell from a bridge through his windshield. So it wasn't the people driving over the bridge; it is the people going under the bridge who are put at risk, simply because we have focused money on things other than highways, bridges, and roads. So it is by law right now that we have to spend 10 percent of that money, and some of it goes to museums.

All this amendment says is, right now, let's not spend money on museums and let's fix roads and highways and bridges. We authorized $4.1 billion over the last 5 years for transportation enhancement set-asides. All of that comes out of the 10 percent mandatory--and I have the other amendment I talked about before.

Let me go through what the GAO report said: $850 million had to be spent on scenic beautification and landscaping projects. Well, $850 million could have built a lot of highways in this country. It could have repaired a lot of those 137,000 bridges. Yet we mandated that the money got spent on something other than roads, highways, and bridges. We allocated $488 million for behavioral research. There is no question that some of that is absolutely necessary in terms of us making decisions. We allocated $224 million for 366 projects to rehabilitate or operate historic transportation buildings--$224 million. That is half of what Oklahoma spends a year on what they get from the trust fund, and we did it to preserve historic buildings and transportation novelties rather than spend it on highways, roads, and bridges. We allocated $84 million for road-kill prevention, wildlife habitat connectivity; $28 million, as I said, to establish 55 transportation museums; $19 million to control outdoor advertising.

What this GAO report says is we refuse to make the hard choices about priorities. All this museum amendment says is not now. For 1 year, let's spend the money we were going to spend on museums and put it into real infrastructure, real highways, real bridges.


I have one other amendment I wish to discuss--and then I will reserve the remainder of my time and give the chairman her time--and that is amendment No. 2370. We know, because of the increased price of gasoline, and we know because of the economic recession we find ourselves in, that dollars going into the highway trust fund have been added. As a matter of fact, twice in the last 2 years, we have borrowed money from our children and grandchildren to keep the trust fund viable because the taxes coming in off the trust fund have not kept up with the pace of spending we have authorized and subsequently obligated to be spent. We know the highway trust fund is on the brink of insolvency. Within a year, if we don't get the 18-month extension which I think is being planned, we will go back and steal another $7 billion or $8 billion from our kids to keep this system viable.

What this amendment says is, if we are going to do that or until it becomes viable on its own, we should preclude the transportation enhancement program. We know we don't have enough money to take care of the very serious problems we have on our roads, on our highways, and with our bridges. Yet we continue to force the States to spend 10 percent of their money not on highways, roads or bridges. That doesn't make any sense. So this is a much stronger amendment than my earlier amendment that says, until the highway trust fund becomes solvent, until we quit stealing money from our kids and our grandkids and actually pay as we go, pay for what we are wanting to do, at least that 10 percent of the money is going to get spent on real roads, real bridges, and real highways, not on enhancements.

I know many do not agree, and I am readily perceptive of their disagreement. The fact is, if you go out and poll the American people and you ask them: Should we fix the highways that allow 13,000 people a year to die because of the quality of the highway or should we build a walking trail or a sound barrier, they will all say: Fix the highways first.

Come back and do these other things later. Should we build a museum when we have roads in disrepair? No. They will all say that--unless they are the ones benefiting directly from the money going to an earmarked project for a museum.

So it is not a question of common sense, and it is not a question of priority; it is a question of whether we will break the chain of how things are done here and, in fact, say: American taxpayers, you are paying this money every time you pump a gallon of gas, and we are going to make sure that goes for roads, bridges, and highways first; and when we get extra money, we will then enhance the areas around or surrounding the highways.

I reserve the remainder of my time.


Mr. COBURN. I think, first, the Senator doesn't understand amendment 2371. It doesn't eliminate any money. It allows the States to opt out of the enhancement if, in fact, it is better.

The Senator talks about life. With 13,000 people killed on bad roads last year, that didn't have anything to do with driving skills or the cars or anything else, other than we didn't put good roads into place. It is a question about priorities.

There will be no job loss at all. There will be no decrease in spending under amendment No. 2371. What it simply says is that you don't have to take 10 percent of your funds anymore and spend it on enhancements, if you know you have people who are going to die because you don't fix a road.

She talks about 200 deaths versus 13,000 deaths. There are 137,000 deficient bridges. Should we fix the roads or build a sound barrier? Which one is important? Should we fix the roads or build another museum? Should we fix the roads or enhance walkways? It is not as if we don't have walkways and trails. The question is, where is the greatest need? And will we make prudent judgments about giving freedom back to the States and say if, in fact, they don't want to enhance in this tough economic time, they don't have to? It doesn't preclude California or Washington State from doing enhancements. They still can. It just says that in those States that have significant critical infrastructure needs and roads that are at high risk, under amendment No. 2371, they get a chance to opt out and do what is best for their citizens and their State, and to fix some of the bridges, instead of building a walkway or a bicycle trail. They will be able to fix a bridge or fix a road and take a curve out where people are dying, instead of building a museum. It is not onerous. The arguments are specious.

The fact is, we are giving back to the States and saying they can prioritize this. If you think enhancements are not as important as the risks you have on your highways, you can opt out--this year only--and put it into roads, bridges, and highways.

Mrs. BOXER. Will the Senator yield?

Mr. COBURN. I want to finish my point. The Department of Transportation in every State is not run by idiots. Their No. 1 goal is for the protection and enhancement of their citizens. We are now saying to Oklahoma or Colorado or Delaware, you don't get to make the decision about what the priority is because 10 percent of the money you get has to be spent this way.

All this is saying is for this year alone--for this year alone--you can opt out of certain provisions. Some you may want to do, some you may not want to do. But if you choose to put $7 million in to take a curve out of a road that is killing people versus building a bike trail or a sound barrier, you can do it. You are actually going to save more lives. It will make no difference in the number of jobs created or saved. It has no effect on that whatsoever. The exact same amount of money is going to be spent, and it is all going to be spent on construction of what the highway trust fund was--I am not saying these are not good ideas. I am saying it is the priority of placing them ahead of safety and improving roads, improving bridges. How do we explain to the family of the person who was injured in Tulsa, OK, that we are going to build a sound barrier rather than the bridge where a piece of concrete fell through his windshield and critically injured him? That noise is more important than that individual's life?

I say give the freedom back to the States for this one year to not require a mandatory 10-percent allocation to enhancements. Most of the States probably will not take that. But I can tell you, in my State, where we have the second or third largest number of deficient bridges, we are going to build bridges, we are going to fix the broken bridges, we are going to save people's lives, and we are going to save more people's lives.

By the way, our taxpayers put the money into the highway trust fund for this with every gallon of gas. Oklahoma has never gotten more than 94 percent back and over the last 20 years has averaged less than 80 percent of what we send here. So it is highly insulting in this year of tough, difficult times for us to get less than what we send up, one, and then say: 10 percent of it you cannot spend on the greatest need in your State; that we know better, Washington knows better. Washington does not know better.

We do not preclude any of the enhancements anywhere else. If the State departments of transportation want to do every enhancement and go to the 10 percent, they can go to it. What we are saying is, if your State has a need that is critical to saving people's lives, maybe you don't build a sound barrier right now but, in fact, you fix the road or you repair the bridge. It is common sense.

The question will be, Do we do what is best for the American people or do we stand with the dogma that says we know better? Can we trust Governors and State departments of transportation to make good decisions for the safety of their individual citizens in their States? I think we can.

I am not excited about what will be the outcome of this vote, but I tell you that this kind of common sense--it does not eliminate it. It just says we should do that.

To save the Chamber time, I will ask unanimous consent to withdraw--Mr. President, I want Chairman Murray to hear this, if she will. I would ask unanimous consent to withdraw amendment No. 2370 which puts a limit until the trust fund is stable. I will stop that. I will withdraw it, if I can have unanimous consent to do that.

The PRESIDING OFFICER (Mr. Kaufman). Is there objection?

Mrs. BOXER. Yes. I object.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Objection is heard.

Mr. COBURN. We will spend the time voting on something I don't think will be adopted anyway.

On amendment No. 2371, none of the claims the Senator from California made are accurate. They are not accurate. There will be no decrease in jobs. There will actually be the opposite of what she said--enhancement and saving lives. There will be a real ability for the States to make the best decisions for their citizens.

With that, I yield back the remainder of my time.


Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, 13,000 people died on American roads last year because of the quality of the roads and bridges. We have spent $48 million in the last 4 years on museums, some of which are already closed. The money we collect from taxpayers should be prioritized to build roads, bridges, and highways. This amendment is a simple amendment. It says we should be spending right now, this next year only, no money for museums until we get the roads back.

I reserve the remainder of my time.


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