What Local Leaders Want

Cities, towns, and rural areas across the country are finding new ways to improve local transportation systems with more bicycling and walking options. So why would some members of Congress oppose funding such initiatives?

According to a recent article in Congressional Quarterly's Roll Call magazine, that's a good question. 

Local governments increasingly prioritize
transportation infrastructure like this bike path.

The magazine, which caters to Congressional offices and interest groups in Washington, DC, ran a story last week about the push for more funding for biking and walking projects.

America Bikes had a chance to speak with Nathan Hurst, CQ's transportation reporter, for the article. The final result, which you can read online, includes input from Caron Whitaker, America Bikes' former Campaign Director. (Whitaker has recently shifted to the League of American Bicyclists as Vice President of Government Relations.)

Nathan Hurst's CQ article gives a good overview of recent pushes for increased focus on biking and walking projects.

In past transportation laws, less than 2% of federal transportation dollars went towards Transportation Enhancements, a program that supported biking and walking projects. 

Transportation Enhancements projects were extremely popular at the local level. Townships and cities found that safer crosswalks, roomier sidewalks, and accessible bike lanes and paths created more transportation options and boosted safety. The projects were inexpensive and efficient, too — bike lanes and sidewalks cost pennies compared to road projects, can accommodate more people per meter per hour, and are less expensive to maintain in the long-term. 

But despite their popularity and effectiveness around the country, some members of Congress opposed biking and walking projects. 

"Supporters of bicycle and pedestrian trails see a disconnect between the views of local officials and their representatives in Congress," wrote Hurst. He notes that during this year's transportation debate, "fiscal conservatives sought to roll back ... [Transportation] Enhancements." As a result, in Congress' new transportation law, MAP-21, lawmakers restructured and drastically shrank the Enhancements program. 

This shift made little sense to those who are familiar with the cost-effectiveness of biking and walking projects. Bike lanes and paths can be built with a tiny fraction of the price tag associated with new highway miles, and they tend to last longer. World-class bicycle networks, such as that of Portland, Oregon, tend to cost around $60 million — the rough equivalent of the price tag for one mile of urban highway.

Especially at a time when governments at all levels are strapped for cash, congressional efforts to shortchange cost-effective infrastructure is puzzling. Quoth Hurst's article: "Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, said those figures make it 'ironic' that lawmakers would cut funding for non-motorized commuting facilities."

But all is not lost — far from it.

Despite Congress' unwillingness this year to prioritize active transportation in federal law, local governments around the country continue to spearhead projects that make biking safer and more accessible. To quote Hurst's CQ piece: 

Whitaker said cities across the country are moving forward with bigger plans for bicycling.

New York is poised to debut a subsidized bicycle sharing program modeled after an established system in Washington. And Roanoke, Va., is touting a growing system of commuter and recreational bike and walking trails as the backbone of an effort to attract young workers to the city and energize its sleepy downtown.

“This isn’t just something relegated to the biggest cities,” Whitaker said.

Residents of Roanoke, Virginia enjoy a path
in the new Greenway system.
Source: Roanoke Valley Greenways

In other words, big cities and small towns won't wait around for Congress to lead the way. While biking and walking projects remain mired in controversy on Capitol Hill, they surge in popularity around the country.

Indeed, while the new transportation law does reduce the overall amount of funding available for biking and walking projects, local governments have more control over the remaining funds. 

It's certainly time for Congress to catch up to progress at the local level. Rather that focus exclusively on inefficient, costly projects that cause communities to sink farther into debt, lawmakers could authorize funds for cost-effective, innovative solutions such as bike lanes and sidewalks.  

So how can we, as people who believe that Congress should prioritize biking and walking, make inroads with our elected officials? America Bikes gave CQ a peek into the future of lobbying for biking and walking funding: 

“One of the biggest parts of our effort is bringing the local success stories back up to their members,” said Caron Whitaker. ... “This is what the community wants. This is what local leaders want.”

Speaking up on the local level can make a big difference. Do you want to see more support in Congress for safer, more accessible biking and walking? Consider asking your mayor, council, or planning department to let your elected officials know why biking and walking funding is important. 

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