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Lawmakers Seek Investments to Make Bicycle Commuting Safer

As cycling to work becomes more popular, it also is getting more dangerous — and a lawmaker is proposing to address the problem by dedicating new funding for construction of infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians.

New Jersey Democrat Albio Sires, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is proposing an $11 million low-cost loan program to help state and local governments build sidewalks, trails and dedicated bicycle lanes. His bill (HR 3978) enjoys support from Republican co-sponsors Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who both represent parts of greater Miami, and Indiana Democrat André Carson.

The program would be modeled on the popular Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program that provides loan guarantees for road, bridge and transit projects of regional or national significance.

Like TIFIA, the New Opportunities for Bicycle and Pedestrian Infrastructure Financing Act would require communities to dedicate a revenue stream to repay the loan. By receiving the credit backing of the federal government, local governments would lock in the lowest available interest rates.

“This novel approach will add another tool in the toolbox for mayors, governors and private investors to reinvigorate their communities and develop a strong, vibrant middle class,” Sires said. He said the program would help fulfill President Barack Obama’s call “on Congress to help rebuild our middle class.”

While cyclists still represent less than 1 percent of all daily commuters, bicycling is the fastest-growing way Americans get to work. The almost 865,000 Americans who cycled to work in 2012 represented a 10 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Census Bureau.

But bicyclists also represent a growing percentage of all traffic fatalities. The 726 cyclists killed in traffic accidents in 2012 represented a 6.5 percent increase over 2011 and were almost 17 percent higher than in 2010, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis. The number of cyclists injured in traffic accidents rose 2.1 percent from the previous year in 2012.

Cyclists accounted for 2.2 percent of all traffic deaths in 2012, an increase from 2.1 percent in 2011 and 1.9 percent in 2010. Pedestrian fatalities in 2012 increased 6.4 percent to 4,743. Combined, cyclists and pedestrians accounted for more than 16 percent of all traffic fatalities in 2012.

Despite the growing risks, Sires complained that “only 1.5 percent of federal transportation funding goes toward making our sidewalks and streets safer for” cyclists. The 2012 surface transportation authorization (PL 112-141) changed a requirement to set aside 10 percent of all grants through the Surface Transportation Program for enhancements such as bicycle and pedestrian paths, instead giving states more flexibility in how they use the money.

Much of the nationwide surge in cycling has occurred in urban centers such as Detroit, where the number of bicycle commuters increased eightfold from 2011 to 2012. The infrastructure in the Motor City has not kept pace with this trend and there are few safe options for bicycle riders.

The legislation introduced by Sires would dedicate 25 percent of the funding for low-income communities such as Detroit that haven’t been able to invest as much in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure as cities such as Washington, D.C., Minneapolis and Portland, Ore.

With the current surface transportation authorization set to lapse at the end of September, enthusiasts hope to include an increase in funding for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in the next highway bill.

The proposal by Sires isn’t the only legislation designed to make commuting by bicycle safer. A House bill (HR 3494) sponsored by Congressional Bike Caucus founder Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., would direct the Transportation secretary to establish new road safety standards and metrics to measure the number of fatalities and serious accidents for non-motorized transportation per miles traveled. The data would help states and localities in their transportation planning.

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