Highways to Hell

Bikes and Buses Battle the Road, Tire and Asphalt Lobby

You’re riding your bike to work on the Willamette River Pathway in Portland, Oregon. Before you get to your office, you stop for a shower at Bike Central, a commuting facility downtown. That evening, you put your bicycle on a bus rack and head for a friend’s house at the Belmont Dairy, a transit-oriented housing and retail complex. What a wonderful car-free lifestyle, you think, but how did it happen?

The answer is a bureaucratic mouthful: the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA, pronounced “ice tea”). Passed by Congress in 1991, this landmark legislation allows use of highway funds for transit, bike and pedestrian projects and encourages community involvement in transportation and urban planning. ISTEA has now run out of money, and there’s an ugly political battle taking place over reauthorization.


Light rail and pedestrian pathways in Portland, Oregon, will be threatened if ISTEA isn’t reauthorized this fall. Since 1991, the legislation diverted over $1 billion from road projects to fund alternative transit, including the addition of bike racks to buses and commuter vans in Seattle (inset).


Bus, bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups have joined national environmental organizations to campaign furiously for the preservation of ISTEA. But major oil and road coalitions are pumping millions of dollars into Washington to cut off provisions for transportation alternatives. In the last six months, for example, Ford, Arco and Amoco have spent $10 million lobbying against ISTEA’s acceptance of rail, bus and bike transportation. Nationwide, state Transportation Departments are trying to reduce or eliminate programs that fund non-road projects.

“We’re concerned that ISTEA not be stripped and gutted by the highway lobby,” says James Corless, campaign communications manager for the Surface Transportation Policy Project in Washington, D.C. “Given the car industry’s enormous clout in Congress, it’s a real threat.”

Prior to 1991, federal transportation law was basically a road, tire and asphalt policy. Congress dispersed money from the gas tax-supported Highway Trust Fund to the states, which spent the money on expanding the interstate system. “There’s always been a perverse incentive to build new roads,” says Corless. “You either built more highways or you lost your federal funding.”

ISTEA represented an enormous change in national transportation policy. First, states were required to set aside a specific percentage of federal funds for programs to mitigate the effects of highways and habitat destruction. Under ISTEA Enhancement and Congestion Mitigation Air Quality programs, for example, the state of Oregon has spent millions of dollars on bus, bike and pedestrian modes, as well as innovative transit-based developments such as the Belmont Dairy.

“Some of these projects had been kicked around for over 10 years,” says Mia Birk, Portland’s bicycle program coordinator. “But in the pre-ISTEA era, there was simply no money available. Now we’re starting to see a leveling of the playing field.”

ISTEA-funded programs have exploded across the country: the Tamien Child Care Center at one of San Jose, California’s major transportation hubs, the Ybor City Electric Streetcar in Tampa, Florida, and the Shuttle Bug Reverse Commute Project in suburban Chicago. According to the Bicycle Federation of America, over $1 billion has been directed to alternative transportation projects since the passage of ISTEA six years ago.


Bus, bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups have joined national environmental organizations to campaign furiously for ISTEA.


In addition to shifting emphasis from highway construction to sustainable transportation methods, ISTEA established an entirely new process for transportation and urban planning. In the past, state transportation departments controlled federal money; under ISTEA, decision-making is put in the hands of regional governments and citizen and public interest groups, which tend to be more environmentally centered and to place projects like mass transit and bike paths high on their list of priorities.

In Atlanta, for example, citizens working with an ISTEA-created metropolitan planning organization helped to convince local governments to abandon plans for an expensive outer beltway and support regional commuter rail. In Seattle, citizens joined with the Puget Sound Regional Council to build a series of bike lanes and to equip Seattle’s entire bus fleet with bike racks.

Success stories aside, the effectiveness of ISTEA has been thwarted by a transportation bureaucracy steeped in the logic of the automobile. Not only are outdated prohibitions still in place, such as state constitutional bans against non-highway use of gas tax revenues, but many states are paying only lip service to ISTEA’s planning and funding requirements. A case in point is the I-69 extension in Indiana, which a new report by Friends of the Earth and the U.S. Public Interest Group calls one of the country’s 22 most wasteful highway projects. Despite overwhelming citizen opposition to the extension, which will pave over forests, farmland and rural communities, the Indiana DOT has forged ahead and awarded contracts for the design and engineering of the new route.

“From the top down, there have been abuses,” says John Holtzclaw of the Sierra Club, which last year made reauthorization of a new and improved ISTEA one of its top five campaign issues. “Air quality funds are being used to build HOV lanes, which at best are used only three or four hours a day.”

The challenge in 1997 is not only to improve ISTEA but to defend the program against a massive reauthorization campaign mounted by highway interests. Under a plan called STEP-21, 19 states, along with the automotive lobby and its congressional cheerleaders, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Senator John Warner (R-Virginia), want to reduce ISTEA to a completely flexible Block Grant program-minus the mandatory provisions for clean air and anti-sprawl programs.

At House hearings held in 1996, William Fay of the American Highway Users Alliance made his priorities plain. “Since we do not believe mass transit systems serve a clear national transportation purpose, we recommend that Congress eliminate the[m],” he said. Congress is expected to pass a reauthorization bill late this fall. Says Corless, “We’re counting on enlightened local officials and die-hard activism to make sure that $25 billion a year doesn’t get spent on creating problems we have to clean up later.”