Building National Support for Biking: Federal Transportation Bill Extends Olive Branch to Bikers

© John Lindenmayer, League of Michigan Bicyclists.

Debate was long and intense on the reauthorization of the multi-year federal transportation bill. At one point, the Republican majority in the House eliminated all funding for bike and pedestrian enhancements. So it seemed like something of a victory when the final bill passed—three years late—and was signed by President Obama, with some funding for transportation enhancements still included, although it was reduced by 30% from the previous authorization.

Jeff Miller of the Alliance for Biking & Walking says many advocates felt the final outcome was a defeat, but he thinks it’s more complicated than that. “We certainly got hit hard, and hit disproportionately, and I would say that’s a lack of vision and leadership and awareness of what’s happening in this country. All you have to do is look around to see how much more people bike and walk and how much people want options for mobility, and they want to be safe, so we are disappointed in that regard, but if we hadn’t been working together we have no doubt we would have lost a lot more.”

Advocates formed a coalition called America Bikes to get the federal transportation bill passed. Members included the League of American Bicyclists, the Alliance, Bikes Belong, Adventure Cycling Association, International Mountain Bicycling Association, Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals, plus “key partners including America Walks, Complete Streets and Safe Routes to School National Partnership,” Miller says. “Now we’re working together on implementation of this new law.”

Dedicated funding has been stripped under this two-year law. “There are wider eligibilities for a smaller pot of funding, meaning communities are going to have to fight a lot harder to get funding for biking and walking projects,” adds Miller. “One of the bright spots is that communities will have better access to this funding because of local control provisions championed by Senators Cardin (D-MD) and Cochran (R-Miss.). “Some communities will do very well,” Miller says, “while in other communities we know we will have our work cut out for us. In our cities, there’s no doubt that biking and walking are some of the best ways to get around. And even in rural communities, people want to have that option, whether it’s for health, fitness, recreation, economic development, tourism—you name it.”

© Rhonda Winter / Alliance for Biking & Walking

The money that formerly went to three programs—recreational trails, safe routes to school and transportation enhancements—has been consolidated under “transportation alternatives.” It’s just 2% of the funding in the transportation law. The recreational trails funding is largely preserved but it’s only 5% of what’s spent on biking and walking. A big disappointment, Millers says, is that “It’s a flexible pot and could be used for environmental mitigation or biking and walking. Many of us are very supportive of environmental mitigation of road projects, but DOTs [Departments of Transportation] always had to do this and it used to come out of the road building pot of funds. But now they split the costs and take the environmental mitigation out of transportation alternatives instead of reserving that funding for biking and walking. But it could be even worse,” he adds, because the funding could go to building new roads. That’s because the new law allows under-used interstate to be redesigned into a boulevard. “If it’s designed really well and made a complete street that includes the needs of cyclists, pedestrians and transit, great, but it’s still road-building, and doesn’t belong in transportation alternatives,” Miller says.