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Why advocates are distraught over new transportation bill

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on June 28th, 2012 at 2:26 pm

"The bill ultimately looks and feels like what it is: A stopgap that is the last gasp of a spent 20th century program. It doesn’t begin to address the needs of a changing America in the 21st century."
— Transportation For America

It's over 1,000 days late; but instead of relief and smiles, active transportation advocates are reacting with horror and gloom to the new federal transportation bill that emerged from a House and Senate conference committee late last night.

Details of the 599 page bill are still being analyzed, but advocates from Portland and around the nation have seen enough: They are extremely disappointed with what they have to show for years of member email blasts and bike summits. Nearly every major national bike advocacy group, as well as Portland's own Bicycle Transportation Alliance, have already published statements of opposition to the new bill.

The bill, "Reverses years of progress on biking and walking policy," says America Bikes. "A bad bill for bicycling," reads a League of American Bicyclists' headline. The Rails to Trails Conservancy says the bill is, "Bad news for America."

It's not as appalling as the initial House Bill (H.R. 7, which couldn't even pass its own chamber); but many of the provisions in the much more palatable Senate bill (that the House GOP refused to adopt, which is why we ended up in a conference committee) that the legislation is ultimately based on, have been stripped or significantly neutered.

Here are a few reasons for all the heartache:

  • The America Bikes coalition estimates that overall, this new two-year bill slashes funds for biking and walking by an estimated 60-70% — from $1.2 billion in FY 2011 to an estimated $702 million per year under the new plan.
  • Half of the $617 million allocated to a new section of the bill called "Transportation Alternatives" — $308.5 million — can be easily opted-out of by individual states who'd rather spend it on freeways and other auto and freight-centric projects.
  • The cherished Safe Routes to School program, which currently enjoys it's own dedicated pot of funding, has been thrown into the mix of "eligible projects" states can choose to fund among many others in the Transportation Alternatives section.
  • There are some new types of projects — like environmental mitigation of road projects — that are also eligible for funding alongside Safe Routes and other non-motorized projects. Advocates fear this will drain the money and make it even more difficult to compete for the limited funds.
  • Further eroding the Safe Routes program, the existing law made it a requirement for all states to have a Safe Routes to School coordinator position. In MAP-21, that position is only eligible for funding, but states aren't obligated to fund it.
  • Transportation Enhancements, a vaunted program that has been nothing short of a funding juggernaut for dedicated bike paths and other innovative, non-motorized projects, no longer exists as a separate program.
  • Another crucial program for funding bike-related projects, the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program, has suffered key changes. Congress has stripped the provision that used to prohibit the use of CMAQ funds to construct single-occupancy vehicle (SOV) lanes and additional turn lanes on highways. This means CMAQ funds could go toward widening highways, leaving less money for non-motorized projects.
  • The bill completely strips funding for the FHWA's informational clearinghouses. That means more no more money for the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center.
  • A mandatory sidepath provision that bans bicycling on roads inside federal lands is still in the bill (although it's improved slightly from it's original form to provide an exception if the road meets a certain level of quality for biking).

And it's possible that after a closer reading of the bill, even more will emerge.

Despite these horrors, national advocacy groups are striking a careful and conciliatory tone in their statements and emails to members. They say it could have been much worse and they're searching for silver linings. As for taking action, there's really nothing they can do. There are no more opportunities for changes. This thing is done. They also can't pressure pro-bike members of Congress to oppose it, because once the bill became known as the "jobs bill" and became laden with the student loan reprieve and flood insurance provisions, it also became politically unassailable.

Even for Congress's top bike advocate Earl Blumenauer, voting against this bill just months before an election, is highly unlikely.

For bike advocacy groups, this is indeed a difficult pill to swallow; but their marching orders are clear. National groups will have to fight and scrap harder than ever for respect. Local groups will have to be on their game, because this bill puts more flexibility into the hands of state governments, many of whom might need convincing that bicycling deserves anything beyond the absolute legal minimum.

The bill is expected to be signed off on by the conference committee any hour now and then it's off the President's desk. Once in place, it will be enacted on October 1st and will be the law of the land for two years. Stay tuned for more coverage.

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Comments
  • Kiel Johnson June 28, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    As someone who is a big fan of Safe Routes to School I think there is some benefit in forcing local communities fund their own safe routes programs. Safe Routes is all about engaging communities and if those communities think it is a worthwhile thing they should pay for it (like we do in Portland) and not praying on the federal government to continue to refund it every couple years which is not sustainable.

    I hope it will also force SR2S programs to rethink what is working and what isn't to promote walking and biking to school. I think the 100% focus on safety in some places probably scares more people away than it encourages.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) June 28, 2012 at 3:14 pm

      Hey Kiel,

      I was also thinking along similar lines. In some ways, the existing transpo bill funded the birth of Safe Routes, and one way to look at this is that now it's time for the program to fly with its own wings.

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    • bicycle rider June 28, 2012 at 7:58 pm

      if you are going that path, you might as well make all transportation funded at the local level and get the Feds out, but a hybrid funding system is destructive where local money is shipped out to the federal level then spent on their chosen projects while bikes and peds are "on yur own" to fight for non-existant money not already shipped to Washington DC

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      • Chris I June 28, 2012 at 10:02 pm

        I think we should keep all of the funding local. If Ohio wants to keep widening freeways and supporting sprawl, let them. We will do it our way, and they can do it theirs. 10 years from now, we'll see who made the right call.

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    • Robert June 29, 2012 at 9:34 am

      That's all well and good in Portland, or even in the northwest altogether. However, most States will simply dump the program so they can continue encouraging automobile use without having to worry about mitigating the negative consequences of those policies. Some States, like Missouri, have DOT's that are not subject to local legislation so listening to the public has virtually no meaning to them.

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  • Spiffy June 28, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    I'm always initially shocked, but then reason sets in and I remember that we live in a capitalist democracy. We can expect more of the same until the next revolution.

    Earl Blumenauer has no choice but to oppose the bill or he will lose all credibility.

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    • Rol June 28, 2012 at 4:42 pm

      Earl gets a pass from me on this one, no matter which way he votes. This bill is, as they say in Sweden, a klüsterfük.

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      • q`Tzal June 28, 2012 at 10:50 pm

        A fluster cluck you say?

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    • Joseph E June 28, 2012 at 8:44 pm

      The Netherlands and Denmark are both high-income, developed, capitalist democracies with excellent bike infrastructure and accommodations. When enough voters and politicians support better roads and streets for bikes, it will happen here too.

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      • oskarbaanks June 30, 2012 at 12:32 pm

        If you subtract water from the Netherlands, its about the size of Missouri. And Denmark is tiny too. Lot's of affluent densely packed people that developed a system as space dictated.Loads different than changing infrastructure here.

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  • Dave June 28, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    Sounds like it could have been much worse. I have some tendency to agree with some of the "kick control back to the states" ethic behind a lot of the changes - at least that fits the classic Republican ideology of local control which I can respect if not always agree with.

    I'm confused about the federal lands thing though - what exactly does that cover? Forest Service / BLM land, or built-up land like military bases etc? Would that mean I couldn't legally mountain bike on a fire road in a national forest, or on a highway through a national forest, or just the road from the front gate to the PX at Fort Suchandsuch?

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    • Dave June 28, 2012 at 5:16 pm

      Found the actual language:

      (d) BICYCLE SAFETY.—The Secretary of the appropriate Federal land management agency shall prohibit the use of bicycles on each federally owned road that has a speed limit of 30 miles per hour or greater and an adjacent paved path for use by bicycles within 100 yards of the road unless the Secretary determines that the bicycle level of service on that roadway is rated B or higher.

      Primarily focused on national parks, but could apply elsewhere in the right conditions.

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      • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) June 28, 2012 at 5:24 pm

        Dave and others.. Just FYI, this provision cannot be applied to any other roads. It only applies to federal roads like ones that go through state parks.

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        • Alan 1.0 June 28, 2012 at 8:21 pm

          I think you mean federal roads that go through National Parks...? (Can't think of a fed road through a state park.) Just to be clear, it does NOT apply to interstate freeways, does it?

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          • Barb Chamberlain June 29, 2012 at 11:12 pm

            It appears to apply only to federally owned roads that have an adjacent path, the way I read it.

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            • Alan 1.0 June 30, 2012 at 10:23 pm

              Thanks, yeah, I'm just not entirely clear what roads that really affects. I suppose there might be the odd case of a fed road through a state park, and it could have a path beside it. Freeways, if those qualify as federal roads, might be more commonly affected. For instance, I-84 through the Gorge has the historic highway next to it, and there's a bike path west of Cascade Locks. Those could well be more pleasant and popular, but I'd still like to know if the law would then prohibit I-84 bike travel (for example).

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            • Alan 1.0 June 30, 2012 at 10:48 pm

              PS - Barb, I hadn't seen your blog before and it's great! I particularly liked the article "Who Really Pays for Streets? We All Do" of 18 June. I've added a link to it in this thread in BikePortland Forums, a collection of related articles.

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  • Robert Ping June 28, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    Kiel and John, I appreciate your sentiment that Safe Routes to School should be popular enough to automatically elicit its own financial support in every community in the US - what a great concept! Heck, we shouldn't be in the position to even need Safe Routes to School, should we? Kids should just be getting to school in bike trains and walking school buses by themselves without advocacy and funding. But the reality check is that this is an easy argument to make here in Portland, where many people at the BTA (including myself formerly), PBOT and other partner groups worked very hard for years to get this great program started. Without a committed funding mechanism Safe Routes to School would not be a reality even here in Portland.

    Yes Safe Routes to School is popular, a model program, a growing movement, and a cheaper way to get people moving each day than by motor, not even counting the health and community benefits of kids and parents and neighbors getting out and about. But in virtually every community in America Safe Routes cannot yet function without financial assistance, because most kids can't walk or bike yet without improvements to our streets and safety and attitudes. Much like the recent arguments against unions, even among 'liberals' - "we have good worker provisions now, so why do we still need unions?" - the same goes for Safe Routes to School. It works BECAUSE we fight for it and keep it moving forward. Kill unions and workers could eventually go back to 18 hour days, child labor and no weekends. Kill Safe Routes funds and kids will again be locked into the back seat of the SUV and inactive.

    I invite anyone who thinks we don't need funding for Safe Routes to School to walk into Coolville, USA and start getting kids moving without funding. Coolville could be one of our own suburbs. Consider this a challenge. Good luck paying your rent if you volunteer, because it would take full time work and much more in most communities, and you can't pay for sidewalks, traffic calming and safe street crossings with your personal checking account. Don't count on underfunded cities or school districts to pay for anything they aren't compelled to by law or political pressure, especially in this economic climate. The Automobile-Oil-Industrial Complex fights very hard to keep people driving and buying. The new US transportation bill is proof of that.

    We are not ready to let the Safe Routes to School program fly on its own, because its wings are not fully developed yet!

    Maybe one day we will build walkability into every transportation and land use decision and we can finally let kids (and adults) safely walk and bike around their own neighborhoods without a funded program. What a happy day that will be, and I can move on to another social problem! In the meantime, I will still be fighting for funding for Safe Routes to School.

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    • Erik Sandblom June 29, 2012 at 4:54 am

      Robert, well said. The only reason Safe Routes to School is necessary is that all the other transportation spending remains so car-oriented. Safe Routes to School is just a polite way of saying "Not Getting Hit By Cars Routes to School". It's fine to have volunteers working for walking and cycling, but if the big investments are going to ever more car traffic, the problems will persist.

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  • Lenny Anderson June 28, 2012 at 5:41 pm

    Come November we all know what to do: vote early, vote often and vote Democractic.

    Recommended Thumb up 8

    • Joe Rowe June 28, 2012 at 9:19 pm

      I suggest people vote based on issues.

      Earl and democrats have allowed this to happen without a fight. They blame others for this. When it comes to other issues Earl is silent.

      I've asked Earl and many democrats to let their constituents know where they stand on the CRC. Earl is silent, as he is often. Earl votes for free trade and follows what his party commands. That's why Earl was silent on impeachment and voted to ban Gay Marriage.

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      • Chris I June 29, 2012 at 11:26 am

        And the alternative is?

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  • 9watts June 28, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    Who are these people, who craft this language? Do they even know folks who get around without cars and planes?
    I take comfort in the fact that Peak Oil & Climate Change will take care of these flights of ideological fancy soon, though not soon enough.

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  • q`Tzal June 28, 2012 at 10:58 pm

    It's funny what gets in to law wrapped up in completely unrelated bills up for a vote.
    Like student load extensions in a transportation bill or
    Pistachio farming subsidies in a Department of Defence budget.

    If we only had some way to vote on only one issue at a time.
    Hmmmm....

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    • oskarbaanks June 29, 2012 at 7:58 am

      That is the part I never understand, and find so *%#@(* infuriating.

      Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Erik G. June 29, 2012 at 8:47 am

    Quality Housing came to Berlin in the mid-1800's due to intervention by the Prussian/German Military who were finding it hard to shape disease-ridden children/adolescents into soldiers and officers. The Interstate and Defense Highway System is just that due to Ike's realization that trucks could not travel from coast to coast in pre-WW2 America because they got stuck in the mud. I wonder if the USDOD budget needs to be tapped for some or perhaps all of this kind of funding?

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  • Robert Ping June 29, 2012 at 9:46 am

    By the way, Earl worked really hard for bicycling and walking in this bill. The sick game here is putting items in the bill that have nothing to do with transportation to force the Demos hand, like student loans and flood insurance! The Demos were mostly left out of the conference report process as well, which they protested on the floor. This battle has been going on for over a year now, and there are bloody knuckles on the left. There are a couple of silver linings, one is that a little of the federal regs are reduced, making it easier to spend money on small projects like biking and walking, and the other is that this is only a two year bill, not five or six, so we will ramp up for the next fight starting as soon as January 2013.

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