Local Officials Help Bicyclists Peddle Their Cause

Posted November 14, 2012 at 7:51pm

Cyclists and pedestrians were among the biggest losers in the recently enacted highway law, which reduced funding for bicycle paths and walking trails and softened a requirement that states spend a portion of their federal aid on transportation “enhancements.”

Now, advocates for commuters who ride their bikes or walk to work are counterattacking with a new lobbying strategy that relies on mayors, county executives and other municipal officials to make the case for federal investments in non-motorized transportation.

“One of the biggest parts of our effort is bringing the local success stories back up to their members,” said Caron Whitaker, outgoing campaign director for the advocacy group America Bikes. “This is what the community wants. This is what local leaders want.”

Supporters of bicycle and pedestrian trails see a disconnect between the views of local officials and their representatives in Congress.

During debate of the surface transportation authorization earlier this year, fiscal conservatives sought to roll back a requirement that states set aside 10 percent of their Surface Transportation Program funding for enhancements.

Among the leading critics of the set-aside was Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe contended that such expenditures were “frivolous” and imposed a “one-size-fits-all” approach on states that might prefer to spend the money on roads and bridges.

But a decade ago, then-Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys launched plans to develop a 200-plus mile system of dedicated bicycle routes in a city that transportation experts rank as the nation’s most car-dependent. According to the Census Bureau, 96 percent of city residents drive alone to work. So far, a dozen trails to provide commuter and recreational access have been completed, started or are ready to go. Another 18 have been planned but not funded.

Whitaker said cities across the country are moving forward with bigger plans for bicycling.

New York is poised to debut a subsidized bicycle sharing program modeled after an established system in Washington. And Roanoke, Va., is touting a growing system of commuter and recreational bike and walking trails as the backbone of an effort to attract young workers to the city and energize its sleepy downtown.

“This isn’t just something relegated to the biggest cities,” Whitaker said.

The move in the recent surface transportation law to restrict spending on transportation enhancements was a reversal of Obama administration efforts to incorporate urban “livability” initiatives into its transportation policies. The idea was to encourage development, for example, near public transportation and shopping to reduce traffic congestion and pollution.

A six-year surface transportation bill proposed in 2009 by then-House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., embraced those concepts. But the House never came up with a formula for funding the bill, which faltered when the White House and Senate withheld support.

The League of American Bicyclists argues that investment in more bike and pedestrian paths can entice many drivers out of their cars.

In the Danish capital of Copenhagen — widely seen by transportation planners as a model for bicycle infrastructure — investments since 1996 in a $68.2 million network of bicycle paths will put half the area’s commuters on two wheels by 2025, up from 34 percent today. By comparison, the most expensive stretches of urban freeway in the United States can cost upward of $1 billion per mile.

Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, said those figures make it “ironic” that lawmakers would cut funding for non-motorized commuting facilities.

Whitaker said she hopes the 113th Congress will take a fresh look at the cost savings from investing in bicycle and pedestrian routes when it takes up another surface transportation authorization in 2014.

“We truly believe the numbers speak for themselves,” she said.