Proposal to fix bridges by taking away safety money won’t solve the problem

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) got a lot of  media play for joining President Obama in Kentucky last week and unveiling his own plan to prioritize bridge repair by taking away a tiny amount of funding that helps improve safety for people walking or biking and redirecting it to bridge repair. But Senator Paul’s proposal is built on a series of false premises.

If you’ve seen recent stories on aging and deficient bridges — on NBC Nightly News, Chris Matthews’ Hardball or in countless newspaper reports — you heard echoes of our report flagging the urgent need to tend to our aging bridge infrastructure.

Senator Paul proposes that we take what he pegs (erroneously) as the “10 percent” we currently set aside for “turtle tunnels and squirrel sanctuaries and all this craziness” and divert it toward an emergency fund for urgent bridge repair.

Senator Paul’s math is way off. Paul – like Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn last week and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor the week before – is grossly misstating the size of the program being attacked, the so-called “transportation enhancements” program. This program amounts to 1.5 percent of the total federal outlay for transportation, not 10 percent. Not even close.

This program, created 20 years ago, is the main source of funds to create safer conditions for those bicycling or walking — often correcting past mistakes by making dangerous roads built with federal dollars safer for everyone. While a share has gone toward other uses, such as environmental mitigation, more than half of the meager 1.5 percent is spent on making people safer.

The backlog in needed bridge repair, covered in our national report, runs to the many billions of dollars in every state. Senator Paul’s proposal would do very little to actually fix our bridges while making people less safe.