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.