Oberstar’s $500B T-bill would establish livability office, U.S. bike route system

National Bike Summit 07
Rep. Jim Oberstar speaking at the 2007
National Bike Summit.
(Photos © J. Maus)

Today — the man who just two years ago stood in front of 2,000 Cycle Oregon riders in lycra shorts (after he himself battled the day’s grueling climb) and told them he would “thread the language of bicycles into the federal transportation bill” — got his chance when he submitted The Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009 to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

U.S. Congressman James Oberstar, who is Chairman of that committee and a towering figure in the American bike movement, has presented the proposal along with House colleagues Peter DeFazio, John Mica, and John Duncan.

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Rep. Oberstar (L), seen here with
Rep. Peter DeFazio on
Cycle Oregon 2007.

The bill would replace the current federal transportation bill which expires in September. In it, Oberstar proposes $500 billion over the next six years on a variety of programs and facility types — from highways to high speed rail.

According to Josh Vorhees in the New York Times,

“Oberstar and ranking member John Mica (R-Fla.) are calling for a $337 billion investment in highway construction, $100 billion for public transit and $50 billion for President Obama’s vision of a nationwide high-speed rail system. The remaining $13 billion is for a variety of smaller initiatives.”

The bill comes just two days after U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood called for an 18 month extension of the current transportation bill. Oberstar is opposed to any extension and he wants Congress to pass a new bill before the end of the year.

…a cursory search of the document found 129 mentions of the word “highway”, 128 mentions of “transit”, and just 7 mentions of “bicycle”.

A quick scan through the 90-page document shows sweeping changes to the status quo of how the federal government manages and funds transportation (75 program would be cut or consolidated). Among them is a much stronger focus on investments in transit and metropolitan areas, as well as tying funding to livability and climate goals.

How does bicycling fare? We’ll be digging into that more in the coming days and weeks, but a cursory search of the document found 129 mentions of the word “highway”, 128 mentions of “transit”, and just 7 mentions of “bicycle”.

A major highlight of Oberstar’s bill is the establishment of an Office of Livability within the Federal Highway Administration. According to the bill, the office would,

“bring focus and leadership to move alternative modes of transportation forward, and improve the livability and sustainability of the nation’s communities.”

Here’s another excerpt from the bill’s language about the Office of Livability:

“While car travel will continue as the core of our surface transportation system, our network must give travelers options that go beyond the automobile. Public transit, walking, and bicycling take cars off the road, reduce congestion, lower our dependence on foreign oil, and lessen our greenhouse gas emissions. A system that provides modal choice provides benefits for all users.”

“The Office of Livability will establish a focal point within FHWA to advance environmentally sustainable modes of transportation, including transit walking, and bicycling.”
— from a white paper outline of the bill

In a 17-page white paper released yesterday, Oberstar wrote that the Office of Livability would, “establish a focal point within FHWA to advance environmentally sustainable modes of transportation, including transit walking, and bicycling.”

The description of the Office of Livability points out several specific tasks it will be responsible for. Among them are the “adoption of comprehensive streets policies and principles.” (A.k.a. “complete streets”.)

And, in what must be causing major excitement in the Missoula, Montana offices of Adventure Cycling, the bill states that the Office of Livability would establish a “U.S. Bicycle Route System,” which would, “create a system for approval and designation of routes on a national system of bicycle routes.”

This is a nod to the collaborative effort between Adventure Cycling and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) that would establish a 50,000 mile network of 50-mile wide swaths that criss-cross the country and link key destinations. In October 2008, AASHTO formally approved the framework for this plan.

Of course, there’s still no money to pay for this $500 billion proposal (which is almost twice the size of the current transportation authorization) and there is a very big question mark over whether or not it will even be given the time of day by Congress any time soon.

Download the full bill outline here (PDF), or check the 17-page, condensed version here (PDF). (Thanks to T4 America for the docs.)

More coverage and analysis:
Transportation for America
New York Times
The Economist

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