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

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 Peters raised 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.

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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