Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Inspiring Movement

Dear Campaign Advocate,

You have likely heard by now of the flurry of activity that took place last week as Congress worked until the eleventh hour to pass an extension to our federal transportation bill SAFETEA-LU. Below, I discuss not only some of the events of last week, but a few critical pieces of information we have gleaned since the extension was passed.


As the seventh extension of SAFETEA-LU (which expired on Sept. 30, 2009) was scheduled to expire at the end of this month, Congress moved last week to pass another six-month extension, thereby enabling federal funds to continue to flow to surface transportation projects nationwide. Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorization was set to expire on Friday, Sept. 16. The U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 2887 on Tuesday, Sept. 13, sending the measure to the Senate to pass it and thereby extend both FAA and SAFETEA-LU funding.

Coburn's threat; RTC’s response

Meanwhile, the office of Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) confirmed to us at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) that he planned on offering an amendment to eliminate the dedicated funding that ensures Transportation Enhancements (TE) projects are funded by state DOTs. TE is the nation’s largest funding source for trails, walking and bicycling, and Sen. Coburn’s amendment would likely have resulted in little to no funding flowing to the program in many states that have a demonstrated record of failing to prioritize this program. We also expected Sen. Coburn to filibuster, blocking the passage of the entire bill to see the TE program gutted.

In response to these threats, RTC alerted our grassroots advocates around the country, who sent more than 12,000 messages to their senators asking them to stand up for TE and reject Sen. Coburn’s amendment. Combined with partners around the country, we estimate that more than 50,000 messages were sent in support of the TE program.

In his attacks on TE on the Senate floor, Sen. Coburn again repeated the "big lie" that states are obligated to spend 10 percent of all surface transportation funds on TE. In fact, the TE set-aside is 10 percent of the Surface Transportation Program, which itself is only one part of all surface transportation funding (the complications of federal transportation terminology!). Taking all programs into account, TE comprises only 1.5 percent of all surface transportation funding, with trails, walking and bicycling in turn receiving about 60 percent of TE spending. RTC has been working to correct this critical factual error with congressional offices, the media and the public.

Sen. Coburn also referred to the TE program as one that funds "squirrel sanctuaries" and beautification projects. He would not acknowledge that the bulk of TE funds go to active transportation projects that improve safety, increase mobility, create jobs and address other federal priorities. While states have the option to use TE to address landscaping needs and manage wildlife impacts of highways, Sen. Coburn’s attempt to mock these categories fails to respect local and state insights into projects needed to ensure a balanced, safe, cost-effective transportation system. Preventing vehicle collisions with large animals is a serious safety measure in some places. Planting wildflowers along the highway may be beautiful, but it also prevents erosion and saves taxpayers the expense of mowing.  

Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that has jurisdiction over the transportation bill, spoke eloquently and passionately about the TE program on the Senate floor. RTC’s Western Regional Office organized a quick thank-you letter that we delivered with numerous California state partners to Sen. Boxer’s office last Thursday.

To break the impasse, Senate leaders offered Sen. Coburn a vote on his amendment to eliminate dedicated funding for TE. Realizing that he would lose such a vote, Sen. Coburn refused this offer and insisted that his amendment simply be added to the bill without a vote. To accommodate this dictate would have required that the bill be returned to the House of Representatives, risking another aviation shutdown. Facing tremendous pressure from all sides to avert this outcome, Sen. Coburn withdrew his hold on the transportation bill, paving the way for late-night passage by a vote of 92-6.

Looking Ahead

Sen. Coburn subsequently claimed in the press that he was convinced to withdraw his hold on the surface transportation and aviation extensions in exchange for agreements that the SAFETEA-LU reauthorization, following these extensions, will remove dedicated funding for TE. However, Sen. Boxer has countered with assurance that TE will be in the reauthorization proposal, although with more flexibility granted to the states on the use of funds within the TE program.

Please stay tuned as we continue to follow the situation and advocate for improved funding for trails, walking and bicycling. And, as always, do not hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance.

Thank you,

Kevin Mills
Vice President of Program
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

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