Practicing my goodbye to all funding for bicycling

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.


About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

12 thoughts on “Practicing my goodbye to all funding for bicycling

  1. No matter how politically expedient the idea of returning to the 1950’s era of Easy Motoring in America may be, our elected officials should start getting used to the idea that it is not coming back. Cycling is not only here to stay, but getting more popular every year as both per capita and absolute miles driven are on a downward trend. Be it fuel prices, health concerns or just some socioeconomic drift is irrelevant.

    Members of either party who don’t know or have forgotten about the positive contributions cycling makes in many of our lives should be informed or reminded that they ignore us at their electoral peril.

  2. When I read things like this it frustrates me. I try to be in contact with my elected officials whether I voted for them or not but despite this I’m just one voice.
    I’m reminded of scenes of Netherlands when the dutch demanded safer roads and better multi mode infrastructure by the thousands. If we could only get a large, well cooridinated grass roots movement going here. Somethings long term, something that is not “owned” by either the left or the right but by everyone citizen.

    • Excellent video! Good for the Dutch!

      Sadly for us, it won’t be for another forty years from now, until Milwaukee will have a major harbor bridge that accomodates cyclists and pedestrians. Then there will be a video like this as to Milwaukee, and everyone watching it will be shaking their heads, asking themselves “how could government official in the 1970’s, and in 2012 have been so, so stupid? How could they have been so blind to the beauty and value of a major signature bridge with walkers, runners and bikers streaming over it?” The saddest words ever spoken: “if only.”

  3. This certainly isn’t good news, but doesn’t the Complete Streets legislation adopted by the Wisconsin Legislature in 2009 act as a safeguard? Or does it not apply because we are talking about Federal monies?

    I’m introducing a local Complete Streets ordinance for the City of Manitowoc on Feb. 6. Rep. Petri is my Congressman and is having a listening session on Feb. 1 at the Manitowoc Public Library (1:00pm). I’ll be sure this is a topic that is discussed. It may serve well for the BFW to get members in Manitowoc out to that meeting.

    • Matt,

      The Wisconsin Complete Streets rule, or “Trans 75” would serve as some protection for on-road bicycle accommodations, as long as that remains a policy. But most every retro-fit bicycle project in the state, even at the local level, is funded from TE, CMAQ or Safe Routes. If those go away, so will all separate bicycle projects unless the state or local municipalities begin to spend their own money on those projects.

  4. Unfortunately, we seem to have politicians who make policy according to who’s kicking in to their war chests. This is especially true now that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and other organizations can spend as much as they want on campaign contributions. It appears to me that government policy will be determined by whomever is the highest bidder and has the deepest pockets.

  5. Although elimination of TE, Safe Routes, and CMAQ is not desirable, there might be a silver lining.

    The House Transpo Bill doesn’t _prohibit_ using highway funds for bike/ped – it merely requires that funded bike/ped projects can show themselves to be worth spending those dollars on. When bike/ped projects can compete successfully with other road projects, this would speak louder to the general public about the value of good active transportation infrastructure than having dedicated pots for such spending.

    Would this be a risky approach to bike/ped funding mechanisms? Probably. But eventually (and hopefully sooner than later), this risky approach will succeed (the reality of peak oil and climate change from burning the coal required by the oncoming wave of electric cars). In that regard, perhaps this challenge of competing against other modes of transportation should be embraced instead of feared.

  6. Transportation policy operates under the illusion that state and federal highways serve long inter-regional trips and therefore shoud fall under the purview of state and federal governments and funding mechanisms. Actually a huge percentage of daily work trips take place on state and federal highways. So, by funding these highways for daily work trips and not alternatives like walking, biking, public transit, and local roads, transportation policy subsidizes the high cost, high harmful inpact modes of transportation. Now one could argue that the reverse to should be true, but at the very least, shoot for an even the playing field. There is no good public policy justrification for subsidizing these sprawlways.

    Let me give you an example. I used to drive 46 miles roundrip to a job using an interstate highway. Now I use a combination of busing, biking, walking and driving on local roads. How is society worse off? Why would we as a society want to encourage me to go back to consuming all those resources — unless we’re looking after the interests of the road builders, oil companies, etc. I guess I anwered my own question.

  7. Sadly, this news is yet one more example of the tail wagging the dog. Our governor, and all those who pander to his mindless agenda, are not only treating the students, working citizens and elderly of our state unjustly, but they are also giving the State of Wisconsin a very bad name. In one of the replies to this blog, someone mentioned the power of the
    people that is reflected in grass roots movements. I sense that the “occupy” mentality which–for an increasing number of reasons–is sweeping across our nation, is unequivocally the single, most powerful weapon in the people’s arsenal
    which will bring those who govern us to their knees.

    We are no longer a government of, by and for the people; instead we have become a nation governed by elected public servants incessantly dictated to, leveraged by and caving into corporate lobbyists and the Supreme Court. What a travesty when our Supreme Court–in January, 2010–ruled to remove all restrictions from what corporations can do with respect to political campaign contributions. This has opened the flood gates of political corruption in our country!

    As a member of the U. S. Army Signal Corps, I had the privilege of being stationed in Norway in the 1950s. As I traveled throughout Europe, whenever I had the opportunity to do that, I was so impressed by its wonderfully efficient and practical transportation infrastructure. I can remember–while driving through the Netherlands in particular– remarking to myself that in EACH direction there were four (4) distinct traffic lanes: two for autos & trucks, one for motorcycles, a third for bicycles and the fourth for pedestrians. What better way to stay fit than to bike and hike?

    I sense that it’s the petroleum industry–wanting to protect if not enhance its bottom line–which lobbies against a similar infrastructure in our country. Also, have you ever wondered why the traffic signals along Carmichael Road in
    Hudson are so out of sync. All that stopping and starting unequivocally increases fuel consumption (and air pollution). This aggravating stop-and-go traffic on Carmichael Road, then, seems more than just coincidence when one considers that among the movers and shakers in Hudson are families known to be involved in the petroleum industry.

    In his wonderful book titled Profiles in Courage President John F. Kennedy wrote: “One person CAN make a differ-ence; each of us should TRY.” Let us learn from and try to imitate those communities and those countries who are good role models for us. I encourage each of us–then–to stand up, to be counted to speak out and to act. If we do not, we will most certainly be overrun. Respectfully, Buzz Marzolf (Hudson, Wisconsin)

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