A sanctuary for white squirrels, an antique bicycle museum and a giant roadside coffee pot are some of the projects that can still be funded with gas-tax dollars meant for highway construction after the Senate defeated a measure to strip such spending.
The amendment was offered by Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) on Wednesday to a massive spending bill, but was tabled 59 to 39. The measure would have lifted a federal requirement that 10% of highway funding to states be used for beautification or historical projects.
“I think bicycle museums are really nice, but it’s also a fact more people drive over dangerous bridges every day than go to McDonald’s,” McCain said.
The Arizona deficit hawk, known for targeting government waste, said one museum used $440,000 in government funding for antique bikes, and he held up several pictures of the projects, including a photograph of a beautification development of decorative rocks that cost nearly $500,000.
“I think this squirrel sanctuary is probably an important thing, but who loves this boulder?” McCain asked.
“The fact is we have dangerous bridges, we have highways that need repair. Let the states decide their priorities and not force states to put aside 10% of funding for so called transportation-enhancement activities,” McCain said.
“This is a fundamental philosophical difference about where taxpayer dollars go and who decides,” McCain said. “We should not be forcing people to spend money on things that are not necessary anymore.”
The McCain amendment also would have prohibited funds to be used on scenic or historic highway programs, tourist centers, landscaping, outdoor advertising or transportation museums.
However, a key conservative objected, saying the provision didn’t go far enough, because it still allowed that 10% pot to be spent on off-road projects such as bike and pedestrian trails.
Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.) said the entire mandate should be eliminated, along with “this mentality that no idea is a good idea unless it comes from Washington.”
“We’re still going to have to spend money on wildlife bridges and tunnels so turtles can get under the highway and not get run over,” Inhofe said.
While the cuts didn’t go far enough for Inhofe, Sen. Patty Murray (D.-Wash.) said the targeted eliminations were draconian and that it would cripple Amtrak, because many of its stations were on the National Register of Historic Places.
“You can distort this amendment if you want to say it ends Western civilization as we know it,” McCain said. “It doesn’t.”
The Senate has combined three appropriation measures into one measure with a $128 billion price tag, to pay for agriculture, commerce, justice, science, housing and transportation projects that they will vote on later this week.
On Tuesday, the Republicans and Democrats approved an amendment 99 to 0 that blocks the Justice Department from spending money on any future undercover operation similar to Fast and Furious.
Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.), who sponsored the amendment, said it ensures “that such a foolish operation can never be repeated by our own law enforcement.”
The onus is now on Attorney General Eric Holder to hear “the American people’s demands that Washington be held accountable,” Cornyn said.