Wisconsin’s lost opportunities for bicycling and walking

Thanks to friend and Bike Fed Board Member Robbie Webber for this overview of how the proposed state transportation budget guts the funding for bicycling.

Like many states, Wisconsin has embraced bicycling as a growing tourist draw, sport, inexpensive transportation option and jobs creator. Between tourism, events and Wisconsin’s position as the home of the nation’s bicycle industry (we are the Detroit of the bike industry), bicycling brings in more than $1.5 billion and supports 14,000 jobs every year. Unlike many states, the 2014-15 state budget diverts almost all of the federal funding for biking and walking facilities into programs for more highways. This pains me as a current Bike Fed Board member and a resident who enjoys bicycling for transportation and recreation.  As a transportation policy professional, my “day-job”, fellow Board member Mary Ebeling and I just put together materials on best practices for using federal funds for bicycling and walking and presented that information at a meeting to 18 state Department of Transportation and metropolitan officials from around the country. It is sadly ironic that our own state is not following these federal best practices.

Once the national leader in trails, other states are investing more and passing us by. Wisconsin remains in the top three, but there is no reason for us to fall further behind.

Wisconsin has long diverted some of the federal funds for bicycling and walking to highway projects, but the new biennial transportation budget takes that diversion to a whole new level. Let’s take a step back and see where this money comes from and where it can be used. Under the new federal transportation bill known as Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century – MAP-21 for short – a small amount of federal funds are sent to each state for use on biking and walking facilities, education for children, and a short list of other activities known as “transportation alternatives.” This program is named the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP).

Under the previous federal bill, these activities were known as the Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to School programs. Maybe your community has benefited from this program by building multi-use trails, a bridge for walkers and bicyclists across a busy highway, or a connection to schools from residential areas. Maybe you have a pedestrian and bicycle safety education program in your local school. All that was likely funded through these federal programs.

In past years, all the funding was sent to the Wisconsin DOT, who then had a competitive process among local jurisdictions to award the funds. The state also supplemented the federal money with state funds to make the money available even more generous, so there were actually three Wisconsin programs that benefited walking and biking: Transportation Enhancements, Safe Routes to School, and the State Bicycle and Pedestrian Facilities Program.

But the process has changed with the MAP-21. First, the Transportation Enhancement and Safe Routes to School programs were combined, and the total available funding was reduced by about 30% from the previous federal levels. The new federal bill requires that local metropolitan planning organizations – which do transportation planning for urbanized areas larger than 200,000 people – get half the money directly, without going through the state DOT. Federal legislators decided that this would facilitate making spending decisions should be made close to where the money would be used – on local projects. State DOTs get to control the other half of the money to use for projects across the state. They can use it for statewide education, trails that go between regions, or they can send that money back to local jurisdictions through a competitive process.

Confused? You’re not the only one. That’s why Advocacy Advance – a collaboration between the Alliance for Biking and Walking and the League of American Bicyclists – created this flow chart to help you “follow the MAP.”

But the state DOT can also divert part or all of their share to general transportation spending – usually roads. That’s what happened here in Wisconsin. The original transportation bill, put forward by the DOT and considered by the Joint Finance Committee, diverted all the state portion of the federal money to the highway pot. Fortunately, through the hard work of Bike Fed and our allies, some of the money was put back to bike and pedestrian facilities and education. But the amount put back in is only $1 million a year instead of the $8-9 million per year that was diverted.

When you look at the cost of the entire transportation budget, which is a bit over $3 billion per year, $1 million, or even $8-9 million, is nothing. It’s not going to proved a noticeable improvement in the condition of our highways or even patch many pot holes. It’s not going to make a dent in the more $1 billion required for each mega-project like rebuilding the Zoo Interchange or adding an extra lane to I-90 from Madison to Beloit. But those few million dollars are the lifeblood of your biking and walking network. It can mean your kids have a safe way to get to school or soccer practice. Or maybe your community can build a path that will allow you to bike to work instead of mixing it up with peak hour traffic. A few million dollars can go a long way when it goes to paths, trails, safety education, or even a new bridge.

Let’s take one more look at the chart I linked to. There is another portion of that federal money that goes directly to local governments based on population. The Legislature can’t touch that. But it’s only half what is supposed to be available under TAP.

There is still time to contact your legislator and tell him/her that ALL the TAP money should be available for biking and walking. It’s not going to make any difference in the highway budget, but it’s going to make a big difference to making Wisconsin the best place to bike in the country.

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 11 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave lives with his wife Liz and daughter Frankie in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's west side.

One thought on “Wisconsin’s lost opportunities for bicycling and walking

  1. One small correction:

    In editing, a bit of my explanation of how the federal money is divided up got changed. Metropolitan areas smaller than 200,000 still get some of that “population-based” allocation. But metro areas of 200,000 or more – Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Appleton, and some communities that are part of cross-state metro areas – get to control the money directly. Other communities and metro areas over 5000 people have to consult with the state DOT, but they still get their money. (See the “follow-the MAP” chart to see how it all work.)

    So Wausau, Eau Claire, Superior, Racine, LaCrosse, etc. still get their funding, but it could have been twice as much across the state, had things gone differently with the budget.

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