Supporters of a proposed wildlife underpass along U.S. Highway 27 north of Tallahassee received unwelcome attention in national media to their project on Tuesday when a Republican U.S. senator identified it as wasteful spending.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., included the “Lake Jackson Ecopassage” as one the top 10 of 100 examples of wasteful spending that he had identified in the federal stimulus package. The project would include building a 4-1/2 foot retaining wall to direct wildlife to three culverts going under the road, which is on a berm built across an arm of Lake Jackson.
State transportation officials say the project is needed to prevent motorists from running over some of the 100 or more turtles, alligators and other wildlife that attempt to cross the divided four-lane highway on some days. But Coburn’s report said existing efforts to protect turtles along U.S. 27 already are working pretty well.
“To borrow money that we don’t have to spend on things we don’t need in the name of economic stimulus when there are things we could spend it on that we do need,” Coburn told ABC News.
ABC opened its report by saying, “Why did the turtle cross the road? Because $3.4 million in stimulus money had not been spent to build him a tunnel. That’s about to change. “
But Matt Aresco, a biologist who founded the Lake Jackson Ecopassage effort, said the Coburn report completely misrepresented the project by failing to state that the project is not just one culvert but three culverts. And he said ABC News and other reports just parroted the Coburn report without emphasizing that the project is not new and that the turtles and alligators crossing the highway pose a serious safety threat to motorists.
“Another thing they don’t talk about is the highway built across the lake bottom four decades created the problem,” Aresco said. “All we are trying to do is fix the problem for a highway that is already built.”
The ABC News report and some others mentioned the safety issue, but only after highlighting the project as wasteful spending. They didn’t point out that Aresco and his supporters have been working nearly 10 years to get the project built.
In that time, Aresco and supporters say they have saved more than 8,800 turtles by creating a temporary fabric fence and carrying turtles across the road. Hundreds of schoolchildren have taken up the cause of building the Lake Jackson Ecopassage and local officials have supported the project.
But Aresco said the fabric fence is only a temporary solution. The temporary device must be monitored three times a day, alligators and some wildlife still can cross over it and the fence falls down, is knocked down or is chewed up by critters trying to get across the road, Aresco said.
“They’re saying the temporary fabric fence and wooden stakes that’s working just fine?” Aresco said. “The minute (we) couldn’t do it any more those fences would fall down and that would be the end of it.”
Coburn report: “100 Stimulus projects: A second opinion”
Lake Jackson Ecopassage web site.
ABC World News Tonight: “Wasteful stimulus spending with your money”: Go to abcnews.go.com/wn and click on the link under “Now Playing”
Wall Street Journal: “GOP faults some stimulus projects”
Propublica: “Battle of the Stimulus, project by project”
Palm Beach Post columnist Frank Cerabino: “More to Florida Turtle crossing than Oklahoma Sen. Coburn claims”
2002 St. Petersburg Times story: “Sticking his neck out for Turtles”