- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Self-appointed waste-watcher Sen. Tom Coburn says he’s already identified as much as $5.5 billion in wasteful or bad projects among the economic-stimulus expenditures on tap.

The Oklahoma Republican, in a report being released Tuesday, argues that while there have been successes, he’s found 100 questionable decisions. Among them is the case of an Oklahoma town that is getting $1.4 million for a water project: Federal restrictions that come with the money have raised the project’s cost by nearly $2 million. The town is planning to raise utility taxes to cover increased costs.

The Obama administration, however, says the report is riddled with errors, and, taken altogether, the spending so far has been “a great success” that has produced jobs across the country.

“With 20,000 projects approved, there are bound to be some mistakes,” said Ed DeSeve, an Obama adviser on stimulus spending. “When we find them, we have been transparent about it and worked on a bipartisan basis to shut them down immediately.

Senator Coburn’s report, however, is filled with inaccuracies, including criticisms of projects that have already been stopped, projects that never were approved and some projects that are working quite well. If Senator Coburn has found any problematic projects, we will address them immediately. But much of this seems to be little more an objection to the Recovery Act itself, which Senator Coburn opposed.”

The $787 billion stimulus bill passed in February, with President Obama saying it would provide jobs and critics fearing it would boost U.S. debt without doing much to help the economy. While saying the bill has helped, Mr. Obama last week acknowledged that his administration needs to get the money out faster.

As with so much of the stimulus bill, waste appears to depend on who’s doing the evaluating.

Mr. Coburn blasts $3.5 million for bike-path construction in Milford, Mass., saying the state still has $80 million in previous unspent money for bike paths. He also calls out a Rochester, N.Y., plan to spend $360,000 for energy-efficient street lights and questions a Miami plan to use $2.1 million to relocate an aging bus terminal.

But the Obama administration says with repeated objections to bike paths or alternative-energy projects, Mr. Coburn’s opposition seems to be more ideological than based on waste.

Officials say they are adjusting to criticism and point to an instance when a road and an environmental cleanup were both set for the same area. After questions were raised by Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, the administration adjusted the schedule so the roadwork would happen first, making sure there wouldn’t be a need for a second cleanup later.

One of the environmental projects Mr. Coburn takes aim at is in Florida, where state transportation officials have devoted $3.4 million to tackling roadkill on U.S. Highway 27 near Lake Jackson.

A 13-foot tunnel is being constructed under the highway to accommodate the more than 60 species of animals that have met an untimely end on the road, which most frequently claims the lives of turtles.

The wildlife crossing is only in the design stages, however, and requires $6 million to be completed.

The senator also singles out a Nevada firm fired for mishandling a weatherization program; the company was given $2 million in taxpayer funds to resume its work.

Mr. Coburn said that contrary to Mr. Obama’s pledge, the Web site that is supposed to give Americans a look at how the money is being spent is not up to the task.

“Taxpayers who will be left paying for every wasteful stimulus project deserve a full accounting of where their money is going,” he said.

Some of Mr. Coburn’s targets in the report have already been halted.

He objected to more than $1 million in stimulus funds going toward repairing a guardrail around a dried-up lake that receives few visitors. The man-made Optima Lake in the Oklahoma Panhandle was built in the 1960s and never filled up with water. The Army Corps of Engineers initially said the new $1.15 million guardrail was needed for public safety, but skepticism by Mr. Coburn and local officials scuttled that project late last week, according to local news reports.

Mr. Coburn also argues that the phrase “shovel-ready” doesn’t necessarily denote importance. Rather than repairing a failing bridge in Blooming Grove, Wis., that accommodates more than 85,000 cars a day, state officials are instead targeting 37 little-used rural bridges.

In one case, $430,000 was used to fund repairs to an Iowa County bridge that carries about 10 cars a day. Officials are pumping $840,000 into another bridge that sees an average of 260 cars a day.

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