Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Congressional funding for bike and pedestrian transit is at stake

September 9, 2011 - 03:27 PM
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Congress debates the future of bike paths. (Photo: flickr/mulad)

D.C., you better watch it. The question of bike and pedestrian funding has reached a national stage — just as President Barack Obama is pushing his national jobs plan, including a strong emphasis on transit, multiple Republicans have come forward against a special section of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act, which has governed our transit spending for years in various ways, known as the "Transportation Enhancements." Most of the act's billions concern highways, the gas tax, and other infrastructure issues, but this section of the legislation carves out funding for bicycling, pedestrian, streetscaping, and other alternative forms of transit — and multiple Republicans want it gone ... much to the chagrin of the League of American Bicyclists.

"Everyone here knows we have badly decaying roads and bridges all over the country," President Obama said during his jobs bill proposal last night. "Our highways are clogged with traffic. Our skies are the most congested in the world. It’s an outrage. Building a world-class transportation system is part of what made us a economic superpower."

Transportation now means politics more than ever. The highway bill referenced above was first passed in 2003, expired in 2009, and has been extended ever since. The Senate approved the most recent extension yesterday through September 30 (though the House has not), yet that's only one step in a much greater political transit struggle. I recently pointed out how GOP House leader Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia is considering putting bikesharing programs like D.C.'s own Capital Bikeshare on the chopping block for federal funding.

Now Cantor and House Speaker Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) write the following in a September 6 letter to the president:

Current law requires that states set-aside 10 percent of their surface transportation funds for transportation enhancements, which must be used for items such as establishment of transportation museums, education activities for pedestrians and bicyclists, acquisition of scenic easements, historic preservation, operation of historic transportation facilities, etc. While many of the initiatives funded by this mandatory set-aside may be worthy projects, eliminating this required set-aside would allow states to devote more money to the types of infrastructure programs you are advocating without adding to the deficit.

Another obstacle is Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), who has said he won't vote for a transportation bill extension that features funding for biking paths and streetscaping. Coburn has advocated against funding bike paths in the past, as in the 2007 speech on the floor of the Senate before.

"We shouldn't be spending our money on bicycle paths for our own leisure and comfort and exercise when we have bridges that are falling down," Coburn said in 2007. "[Bike paths] are great, they're fun, they're enjoyable, but it isn't as important for us to have fun and enjoyment as it is for us to fulfill our responsibility in repairing the roads and bridges in our country."

Those same arguments have reemerged from Coburn this month. As he says, people should be spending money on "true transportation needs." He explicitly excludes biking and pedestrian options from his definition of transit, just as Cantor recently did. In the last two weeks, a Coburn spokesperson said, according to Bloomberg News, that he would "attempt to block an extension of legislation if requirements to pay for bicycle paths and road beautification projects aren’t removed."

These Republican actions have inspired a strong reaction from the American League of Bicyclists, based here in Washington, D.C. The league was founded in 1880 and sports around 300,000 members, and advocates more broadly for all the 57 million cyclists across America.

League president Andy Clark wrote yesterday of his fears — that Coburn will take to the floor next week and "will try to force a vote on the floor of the Senate next week to strip out the popular transportation enhancements program ... which funds the lion’s share of bike and pedestrian projects around the country." He encourages people to write to their senators to attempt to save these funding provisions in the Transportation Enhancements section of the highway bill.

The coming weeks will expose a critical political divide between how our politicians prioritize funding and on the very nature of what defines "transit." I'm watching closely and am curious and would urge you all to do the same. Obama's speech last night has elevated these questions to a new urgency. The American League of Bicyclists is trying to fight back against this tide now, just as the Republican Congressional leadership cautions against excessive spending and suggests that such spending shouldn't include biking and pedestrian programs.

Can we ever escape gridlock? Given how strained negotiations have been in recent years, I wonder whether it's possible — politically or literally.

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