A couple of days ago there was a conference call set up by the Alliance for Biking & Walking to update advocates across the country on the status of the new Federal Transportation Bill. The bill has not been officially made public, but a number of sources have already reported on its contents and a long summary was leaked on Wednesday. To cut to the chase, the draft bill will not include any Transportation Enhancements or Safe Routes to School provisions, but may include a reduced Recreational Trails program.
Federal funds from the Transportation Enhancements, Congestion Mitigation Air Quality Grants and Safe Routes to Schools programs provide virtually all of the funding for bicycle projects in Wisconsin. Because the state spends zero Wisconsin tax dollars on bicycling, if the federal money goes away, we will be left with no more money for two-wheeled transportation projects.
The House bill was written entirely by Republicans with no Democratic input and, in numerous places throughout, the summary emphasizes the logic behind eliminating programs that fund bicycling and walking. Below is one passage that explains the logic behind eliminating dedicated pots of federal dollars for bicycling and walking:
“Furthermore, states will no longer be required to spend highway funding on non-highway activities. States will be permitted to fund such activities if they choose, but they will be provided the flexibility to identify and address their most critical infrastructure needs. However this additional flexibility will not be unchecked. States will be held accountable for their spending decisions through new performance measures and transparency requirements.
The Highway Trust Fund was created in the 1950s to construct the interstate highway system. In the years since, dozens of new programs have been created. This proposal refocuses the Highway Trust Fund on programs and projects that have regional and national impacts and eliminates programs that do not.”
That is quite a change in policy. Next steps are for the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee to markup the bill late this week and likely pass the bill the first week in February. The Alliance and other advocacy organizations are working to have an amendment introduced in committee that would restore funding for these critical bicycle programs. After the bill leaves committee, a vote on the House floor is expected the week of 2/13; the Senate may be voting on their bill the same week. The Senate version of the transportation bill is better than this one, but still a big step backward for bicycling and walking.
There is certainly a chance that the House bill will change through amendments. Congressman Tom Petri (R-WI) is a senior ranking member of the House Committee and a strong advocate for the programs that have been eliminated in the House version of the bill. Given both the Senate and the House bills run contrary to President Obama and Secretary La Hood’s policies and goals, some level of compromise is certainly possible.
Bicycling is, or should be, a non-partisan issue. It is an activity enjoyed by people of every political stripe, yet support for funding bicycle projects is confused at best. Prior to the creation of these dedicated federal funding programs like TE, CMAQ and Safe Routes, states spent virtually no money on bicycle projects. As funding for these programs increased, states and local municipalities began to build more trails and add bike lanes to streets. Without a major change at the state and local levels, if these federal bicycle funding programs vanish, you will probably have to say goodbye to all funding for bicycle projects where you live.
It is important to keep in mind that our national, state and, to a much lesser degree, local transportation funding systems are broken. As people drive less and cars get better gas mileage, federal and state gas taxes have not kept pace with the increasing costs for maintenance of our existing highways and bridges or for their continued expansion. Money from the general fund (read income taxes) and borrowing (debt) now account for about 50% of our transportation budget and that percentage is going to continue to increase unless something changes.
While our current funding mechanism is clearly not sustainable for the long-term, removing the 1-2% of that budget that funds 10-15% (bicycling and walking combined) of all trips may actually cost us more in the end than it saves. If you force all the people walking, bicycling and taking transit back into single occupancy vehicles (cars) it will create more congestion and demand more and wider roads, and drive up costs.
Everyone at the Bike Fed understands we need to repair and re-prioritize our transportation system and the funding mechanism that supports it, but bicycling must be a part of that fix. As the federal transportation bills move forward and our state transportation funding crisis is debated, the Bike Fed will keep our members up to date through this blog and email alerts. In the coming weeks, the Bike Fed will have special blog posts here that explore other solutions to our transportation funding crisis. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions, let us know in the comments section below.