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US DOT Secretary responds to bike path slam: advocates should take note

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on October 5th, 2007 at 10:07 am

Peters: "...comments were in no way
intended as an indictment of
bicycle and pedestrian investments."
(Read full text below or
click to enlarge.)

Back in August, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Petersraised a ruckus for comments she made on a PBS talkshow.

When the conversation turned to transportation investments, Peters referred to "bike paths" as not being transportation infrastructure (she lumped them in with museums and lighthouses).

The comment raised the ire of many bike advocates and even the Director of the League of American Bicyclists, who called Peters out and demanded that she correct the "misleading impressions".

Now, Peters has tried to do just that with a letter that showed up in inboxes of cyclists around the country this morning.

Here's an excerpt from that letter (download letter, JPG):

Thank you for your e-mail about the importance of bicycling and walking as a form of transportation. I share your interest in a safe, efficient multimodal transportation system.

Your e-mail discussed comments I made during a recent interview regarding the importance of effectively prioritizing major transportation spending decisions. These comments were in no way intended as an indictment of bicycle and pedestrian investments broadly. Rather, they were part of a much larger critique of the processes by which investment decisions are increasingly being made at the Federal level. Too often, political influence and power arc guiding transportation spending priorities, instead of merit, competition, data, and analysis.

The U.S. Department of Transportation believes that bicyclists and pedestrians are legitimate and welcome users of our Nation's transportation system....

It's good to see Peters acknowledge the concern of citizens about this issue.

However, the "critique of the processes by which investment decisions are increasingly being made at the Federal level" part worries me a little. It seems that, in light of the Minnesota bridge collapse and the drying-up of the Highway Trust Fund, the new battle cry of the highway lobby and some Congressional legislators is to question spending on bicycle infrastructure and related programs.

kids riding in Northeast
A Safe Routes to School
beneficiary in Northeast Portland.
(File photo © Jonathan Maus)

Take Safe Routes to School for example. Funded to the tune of $612 million in the last Federal Transportation Bill, insiders are already seeing signs that continued priority funding for that successful program is being questioned. BTA Interim Director Scott Bricker was just in D.C. earlier this week to testify on the program's behalf. Here's an ominous snippet from his report on the trip:

"Rep. John Duncan, Jr. (R-TN), the panel's ranking member, said questions have been raised as to whether this type of activity should be funded through the highway trust fund, which he said will run out of money before the end of 2009.

"In fiscal year 2009 the Safe Routes to School Program will receive $183 million. In that same year we allocate only $90 million for highway improvements on high risk rural roads and we set aside only $100 million for emergency highway repairs to respond to natural disasters and disasters like the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minnesota," Duncan said.

"I think the Safe Routes to School program is a worthwhile program, but we need to make sure that we don't shortchange other programs that could save even more lives," he added."

Maybe I'm connecting dots that don't exist; but the bridge collapse in a powerful image that is sure to be a part of transportation funding politics for years to come.

I think it behooves bike advocates around the country to pay close attention to a potential new front in the battle for bike funding.

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Comments
  • JustaDog October 5, 2007 at 10:44 am

    If you look at a picture of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters you can imagine her ass hasn\'t felt a bicycle seat in decades.

    Meanwhile, child obesity is at an all time high and everyone\'s worried about air pollution.

    and we set aside only $100 million for emergency highway repairs to respond to natural disasters and disasters like the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minnesota - typical government employee. I posted about this the other day, and how Minnesota politicians spent almost $400 MILLION of taxpayer money on construction of a new ballpark - and dedication of construction was to take place the night of the bridge collapse.

    Never trust a politician with our money!

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  • BURR October 5, 2007 at 10:53 am

    the interstate highway system and other federal and state highways could suck up the entire federal transportation budget if we let it. earmarking funds specifically for improvements for bicyclists is the only way to guarantee that infrastructure improvements for bicyclists are adequately funded and will be built.

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  • me no likey October 5, 2007 at 11:13 am

    she\'s an anti-bikeite.

    i do not kid, these folks are out there.

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  • Karl Rohde October 5, 2007 at 11:30 am

    \"Never trust a politician with our money!\"
    Before we condemn all politicians, let\'s not forget that it was politicians that got us funding in the first place. I would much rather have someone I elect directing the funding than some unaccountable bureaucrat in an agency that has been historically all about highways.
    Beware of making broad brush strokes. We do have allies.

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  • Bicycledave October 5, 2007 at 11:41 am

    I guess it all comes down to where are priorities are.

    $183 million is a tiny drop in the bucket of Federal spending. We spend more than that per day on the occupation of Iraq.

    According to this site total federal outlays for 2008 fiscal year are $2,387 billion. If I did the math right $183 million is .00007% of the federal budget. For some perspective military spending is more than 50%.

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  • Karl Rohde October 5, 2007 at 11:46 am

    It is also roughly 85% of Oprah Winfrey\'s salary.

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  • Alan October 5, 2007 at 2:55 pm

    You are 100% on the mark. Watch the money, not the headlines and certainly not the DOT secretary (ugh).

    That bridge collapse sat on national and local headlines for days and so did the follow-up stories (the Big O ran a story on the worst bridges in Oregon). Take-home message: we better fork over a lot of $$$ for bridge repair or we\'re all gonna fall in the drink. Never mind that the 1000s of cars that cross a bridge each day are never on the bridge at the same time, so the actual size of any disaster is fairly small.

    Contrast that with a bike injury headline. When a kid gets nicked, or even worse slammed, by a car on her way to school the media gives us a completely different story: bikes are not safe for kids and caring parents shouldn\'t encourage cycling. But if you added up ALL the kids that got injured in bike-car crashes and compared that to ALL the people who fell off collapsing bridges, you might have the right idea: Safe Routes to Schools is a smart investment.

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  • Anne October 5, 2007 at 3:00 pm

    Justadog - From pictures, one could make the same observation about Chris Smith. Looks aren\'t everything.

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  • JustaDog October 5, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    Anne - Don\'t know the guy but you might be right.

    Karl Rohde - you\'re right, sometimes a couple do spend for good reasons. I\'ve voted for Peter DeFazio several times mainly because he\'s done well to get Federal $$$ to expand our bike paths in Eugene.

    Then there are idiots like Lars Larson that has some agenda against bikers and bike paths.

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  • no one in particular October 5, 2007 at 4:20 pm
  • Donna October 5, 2007 at 6:25 pm

    I\'ve seen far more clever weaselwording than Secretary Peters\'. Someone should tell her that fresh air and physical activity stimulates creativity in the human brain and perhaps her political wishwash would be more convincing if she tried it herself.

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  • Todd Boulanger October 7, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    Actually there is a great source of local and state funds for safe routes to schools...how about calling o neach of your representatives to \'open\' up the school bus centric transportation investment each district has. Open it up to allow these funds to be used on student mobility (walking, bicycling, public transit passes, AND school buses) and not just on moving school buses.

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  • Kristen October 8, 2007 at 10:01 am

    So.... did this neat little letter just go to cyclists? Or did it go to everyone who heard her comments or saw her on the show? Or even anyone in the media so it could get as wide an audience as her original comments did?

    Seems to me that sending a concillatory letter to the community you angered on national public television is a bit like preaching to the choir. It doesn\'t do anything to change the minds or even facilitate discussion where it needs to be facilitated, and changed: the wider public (no pun intended).

    And yes, funding for cycling projects is always just a drop in the overall spending. The problem is, most people can\'t get their heads around the numbers involved. They can\'t understand that the amount spent on improvments to alternative transportation models is piddly compared to other spending out of the same pot.

    And that\'s because no one makes a big deal about $6 billion dollars for a new freeway bridge. Maybe the number is too big to comprehend, written out like that.

    Try: $6,000,000,000.00 for one new bridge. Compare to: $183,000,000.00 for improvements to the network of bike lanes, off-street paths, safe routes to school, etc.

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