Groundhogs day for federal transportation bill

Am I the only one who feels like Bill Murray walking up in that hotel room at 6 a.m. to Sonny and Cher singing “I Got You Babe”? It seems like only yesterday (actually it was only in March) that the federal transportation bill expired and we were getting multiple emails a day warning of the end of funding for bicycling as we know it.

Who is driving the transportation funding legislation in Washington?

In the last week or so many of you have probably received many similar email alerts urging you to contact your elected representatives in Washington, D.C. because the future of federal funding for bicycles is being threatened.  If you are like me and are a member of the League of American Bicyclists, Rails to Trails, IMBA, Bikes Belong, etc., you have been inundated by these clarion calls to political action. And if you are like most Wisconsin residents, you are probably burnt out on political calls to action right about now.

Did Chicken Little get a gmail account or is there a genuine cause for concern?  Is the very future of bicycling threatened? If so, is there anything we can do? I think I can answer those questions with these answers: Yes, yes, not really.

The upward climb of highway spending from 1988 to 2008 in real and constant dollars.

To bring you up to speed on the facts, the last time our elected leaders in Washington were able to pass a long-term transportation funding bill was  in 2005. That $286 billion 6-year federal bill (the previous bill was $218 billion, the one before that $155 billion) expired in 2009. Since then our federal transportation system has been limping along on a series of nine (I think I counted them all) extensions to  the 2005 bill because our elected representatives cannot come together and compromise enough to get a new long-term bill passed. The three-month extension that passed in March is set to expire June 30th, so the members of the House are in a rush trying to craft a new bill right now or all our road projects will have to stop where they are and all those jobs will be lost.

The problem is the almost unbelievable lack of bipartisanship in the House right now. Last March, in an increasingly rare display of bipartisanship, the Senate did manage to pass a 2 year, $109 billion bill. That bill incorporated the Cardin-Cochran Amendment that gave the states more flexibility in how they spend federal money, allowing them to spend money on bicycling and walking if they wanted to or not if they don’t. It also included new rules intended to speed up the pace of road construction by limiting environmental reviews, plus a number of other changes designed to boost investments in transportation infrastructure and possibly create hundreds of thousands of jobs in highway construction.

The members of the House on the other hand could not agree on a long-term bill and instead passed the three-month extension that is nearly expired. At the heart of the problem is the extreme fiscal hawks in the republican controlled house trying to put a stop the ballooning transportation budget.  That fiscal restraint sounds well and good, but in practice it has been impossible to get a majority of even the Republican controlled house to agree.  It seems the problem is we Americans loves us some bigger roads, hate even the tiniest delays, and most of us refuse to take more efficient, cost-effective modes of transport, even for short trips.

You can see that our transportation system is now subsidized to the tune of nearly 50% by the general fund and bonding

Turns out that even if you gut the transportation budget of all funding for transit, bicycling and walking, there still isn’t enough money to maintain the highway system we have and expand it every time it gets reconstructed. Just to prove that point, in an overwhelming 323 to 82 vote, the House killed a non-binding motion sponsored by Georgia Republican Paul Broun that attempted to cut the federal transportation bill by 30% in order to keep the budget within the projected limits of the Highway Trust Fund (gas tax money). That seemed to prove definitively that our leadership in Washington not only has no appetite for cuts in transportation projects, they think have no desire to eliminate the nearly 50% subsidies our highway project get from the general fund (income taxes) and bonding (borrowing).

Still with me? What does this have to do with bikes?  Well, even though it seems unlikely that true fiscal restraint will prevail, in order to throw the budget hawks a teeny tiny bone, the current leadership in the House seems willing to completely remove any ability for states to spend any federal money on bike and ped projects. Even though a smaller, flexible federal government giving more control to states is the mantra of the conservative movement of today, when it comes to bikes, the leadership in the House wants to keep total control in Washington and is doing everything they can to eliminate the Cardin-Cochran elements in their attempt to craft a House bill that meshes with the Senate bill.

That brings us back to all those urgent action alerts you have been finding in your inbox. The national organizations are rightly concerned about the threats to federal funding for bikes. Since there is virtually no state or local funding for bike projects anywhere in the nation, the fear is that if the federal money goes away, all bike and pedestrian projects will vanish too. That is a legitimate concern, even in Wisconsin.  The Bike Fed has been told by the administration in Madison, that if the federal money for bike projects is eliminated, there would be no money for bicycling in our state budget.

Assuming you value bike trails, bike lanes, bike parking racks, bicycle safety education for kids, etc., there is not much you can do to save them from Wisconsin. Based on the Bike Fed’s meetings with Wisconsin’s members in the House, they all have their minds firmly made up on this issue.  Below is the list of our current members of the House:


District Name Party Committee Assignment
1 Ryan, Paul R Budget, Chairman
Ways and Means
2 Baldwin, Tammy D Energy and Commerce
3 Kind, Ron D Ways and Means
4 Moore, Gwen D Budget
Financial Services
5 Sensenbrenner, F. James R Judiciary
Science, Space, and Technology
6 Petri, Thomas R Education and the Workforce
Transportation and Infrastructure
7 Duffy, Sean P. R Financial Services
8 Ribble, Reid R Agriculture
Transportation and Infrastructure

With the notable exception of Tom Petri (a bicycle super hero), all the Republicans are either firmly or mostly opposed to federal funding for bicycles. All the Democrats are for it. Furthermore, only Petri and Ribble are on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee where all the negotiations are now taking place. Rep. Ribble, as it turns out, has been assigned to the conference committee that is negotiating with the Senate to arrived at a compromise. While it never hurts to contact your elected representative and tell them that you believe bicycling is a rare, simple, inexpensive solution to so many of today’s complicated and costly problems, based on recent conversations we have had with Rep. Ribble’s office it now seems likely that the Senate version of the bill will remain largely in tact. It might be best to hold your powder. Still with me?

Certainly feel free to follow your heart the next time you get an action alert from one of the national organizations. If you still have the energy and hope, call your leaders in Washington and tell them you bike and you vote, but if you are dead tired of politics, don’t beat yourself up if need to take a break for a bit.  The staff at the Bike Fed is monitoring the circus in Washington, and we will let you know if the big top catches fire.


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.

3 thoughts on “Groundhogs day for federal transportation bill

  1. I’ve written extensively to Rep. Ribble on this subject, but should we be taking the same approach with our senators? I know Kohl has been supportive and I suspect Johnson is not. But could they have any influence at this point? (And is this appropriate discussion on a 501(c)3 site?)

  2. R.:

    Yes, this is appropriate conversation on our site. As a 501 (c) 3 we are allowed to lobby political leaders on our issues.

    I have met with Senator Johnson personally on three occasions. He is adamantly opposed to any additional federal investments. He is not “against bikes” from his perspective but instead against federal investment.

    Yes, Kohl has been supportive of federal investment to improve bicycling.

    I would not discourage you to reaching out to these offices. As Dave said in his post it never hurts for our leaders to hear from bicycle supporters. However, I don’t think it will have any effect though on the current negotiation. The Senate already passed a version of the transportation bill and it’s this version that is the basis for the negotiation.


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