Wisconsin is now sitting at number 29 in the League of American Bicyclists’ most recent Bicycle Friendly States Rankings. Once ranked number two in the Nation, Wisconsin enjoyed a place in the top ten until 2017, after we became the only state in the country to repeal our Complete Streets policy.
This Ranking is a call to action for states to invest in bicycling infrastructure and bicycle-friendly legislation. Unfortunately, for the last half-decade, our state hasn’t done enough. Like many other states, on a bipartisan basis Wisconsin legislators and Gov. Evers agreed to make it easier for people to ride e-bikes in Wisconsin. Frankly, this was low-hanging fruit. Much, much more needs to be done to improve bicycling options, safety, and infrastructure in Wisconsin.
So, what is the path forward for Wisconsin?
- Accept and Distribute Federal Infrastructure dollars. Wisconsin currently ranks 49th out of 50 states in the amount of money we spend on biking and walking at just $0.85 per capita. To move up in the ranking, Wisconsin needs to spend at least 2% of our federal transportation funds on biking and walking.
Since 2014 Wisconsin apportions just $17.4 million in Transportation Alternatives (TAP) money (the main source of funds for trails). Half of this is then instead allocated to roads.
The new federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA, also called the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, or BIL) is infusing $283 million in additional federal highway aid into Wisconsin this year. Still, WisDot’s proposed adjustment to the current state budget requests an increase of $10.5 million FED to the Department’s federal TAP appropriation – the bare minimum required for the state to qualify for IIJA funds. Wisconsin can and should do more.
- Update the state’s bike plan. Our last state-wide bike plan was created in 2010 during the Thompson Administration. It is called the “Wisconsin Bicycle Plan 2020” and officially expired 2 years ago. WisDOT’s proposed “Active Transportation Plan” is slow in getting started and will have less emphasis on improvements specific to bicycles. Wisconsin needs to get to work on creating a new bike plan to improve on our low ranking in bike friendliness and to reflect the dramatic growth in bicycling by our state’s citizens.
- Improve equitable access to trails. The TAP program is designed to prioritize high needs communities. In Wisconsin, these communities are both urban and rural. In Milwaukee County, only 8% of people in neighborhoods experiencing inequality live within two miles of a trail. Development of the 30th Street Corridor Trail and an extension to the KK River Trail would increase that number to 66% of residents, according to a 2017 study by the Rails To Trails Conservancy. We need to get this done.
While the TAP program provides critical dollars for trails, the required 20% local match often means that smaller rural communities are unable to apply. Wisconsin could ensure more equitable distribution of TAP by waiving the match as Ohio has done. What’s more, the IIJA requires that technical assistance is provided to communities that need help in developing viable funding proposals. If this were done for smaller communities, or areas outside of urban centers, it would enable Wisconsin to develop a more complete statewide network of trails.
- If we can fix the damn roads, let’s fix the damn trails. Wisconsin is one of only two states with no funding mechanism (like a tax) to support the DNR’s maintenance needs. DNR-owned facilities have millions of dollars of deferred maintenance and have to rely on camping fees, trail passes, and hunting licenses to generate revenue. Trail passes provide less than 25% of the management funds needed for Wisconsin’s 44 state trails.
In 2009, Minnesota passed the Legacy Amendment, increasing sales tax by 0.375% until 2034 to support clean water, outdoor heritage preservation, arts and culture, and parks and trails. Minnesota ranks 5th on the LAB list. If Wisconsin can increase taxes to support building American Family Field, can’t the same be done to protect our legacy of world class outdoor recreation?
- Adopt a new statewide Complete Streets Policy. Complete Streets prioritize the safety of all roadway users over the speed of moving cars. In 2009 the Wisconsin state legislature passed a Complete Streets Law which in part stated that the Wisconsin DOT shall refuse to provide any state and federal funds to highway reconstruction projects that don’t include bicycle and pedestrian ways – i.e. sidewalks and/or marked or unmarked bike lanes.
When it was repealed in 2015, it was alleged that the program was costing the state $7 million over a two-year period. Conversely, streets built with the needs of all users in mind are a proactive investment in public health and safety and in the $2.52 billion-dollar economic engine that is Wisconsin’s cycling industry.
Wisconsin’s full report card can be found here. A D+ average is a poor reflection of Wisconsin’s outdoor recreation reputation, strong bicycle manufacturing heritage and the spirit of our committed cycling community. Cycling is good for Wisconsinites, and good for Wisconsin’s economy. The University of Wisconsin 2019 study concludes that cycling contributes over $2.52 billion dollars to our economy each year.
With projects in every corner of our state waiting to be completed, now is the time to act for Wisconsin cyclists. While the legislature is currently out of session, engaging with state elected officials on the importance of cycling options, infrastructure, and safety is necessary to turn the wheel and get our state back on course.