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How Helping Teachers Could Hurt Bicyclists

8/23/2010 8:44:51 PM

Tags: rescissions, bicycle program funding, Carolyn Szczepanski

CapitolPlenty of Americans tune out of politics because all the wheeling and dealing in Washington makes lawmaking a muddy business at best. We all fear that, buried in those 400-page bills, are provisions we’d never expect.

Here's a prime example: How does a measure to save 300,000 teachers potentially sucker punch cyclists and pedestrians?

It’s not a riddle. It’s rescissions.

Two weeks ago, Congress passed a bill that will send more than $26 billion in financial aid to the states, preserving the jobs of thousands of teachers, police and other government employees. Great news, right? Politicians finally got their act together and took steps to make sure students aren’t shorted in the classroom and communities don’t have to scrimp on public safety.

But that’s just on the surface. Look a little deeper.

To pay for the massive emergency expenditure, lawmakers needed to come up with some cash. With the federal budget already stretched to the max, they’re yanking back billions in transportation funding they’ve already sent to the states. And it’s not the first time they’ve reached into the pocket of your state Department of Transportation.

Thanks to some dubious math in the 2005 federal transportation bill, Congress periodically demands that state DOTs send back to Washington a slice of money they haven’t yet committed to specific projects. It’s kind of like your boss giving you a pay check and then saying: “I know you were planning to spend a couple grand on that new furnace. But the company is having a hard time, so, what you haven’t already spent on your mortgage and your kid’s tuition, we’re going to need some of that back.”

Already, cyclists and pedestrians get a crumb of the federal funding pie. Not a single state spends more than 5 percent of those federal dollars on bike-ped facilities, like crosswalks or multi-use paths. The 52 biggest cities dedicate a measly 2 percent of federal funds to bike-ped projects — spending an average of $1.39 per capita per year making our collective streets safe for folks who walk and ride.

That’s why advocacy organizations get anxious when the ax falls. We already get so little, and, if history is any guide, our funding is often the first to go.

It happened in 2006. Three rounds of rescissions skewered more than $3.8 billion in transportation funds. And guess what? According to Transportation for America, a full 60 percent of those dollars came from bridge and road repair; public transit and (say it with me) bicycle and pedestrians projects. That slicing and dicing was particularly painful because those programs make up a mere 20 percent of transportation funds.

Luckily, come 2009, some folks in Washington got wise to the game and required that states play fair during another round of rescissions. As DOT officials cobbled together $8.7 billion to ship back to Uncle Sam, they were required to cut programs proportionally. No robbing bicyclists blind to save their preferred auto-centric projects.

But that level playing field didn’t last. This week, as transportation officials make their decisions about how to cut a collective $2.2 billion, the gloves are off. That jobs bill Congress members passed doesn’t require them to hit each funding pot proportionally — and bike-ped advocates don’t want to be the ones left with a black eye.

Mark Plotz at the National Center for Bicycling and Walking made the point last week that we’re not asking to get off scot-free. “However, when state DOTs are deciding how to make the cuts, we want the cuts to be distributed fairly across all modes,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, due to the structuring of the legislation, great discretion is given to state DOTs in deciding what and where to cut. And if history is any guide, bike/ped programs will not fare well.”

Over the past week, the Alliance for Biking & Walking — along with other partners — has been rallying grassroots leaders across the country to make sure their governors know that it’s not fair to balance the new state aid squarely on the backs of bicyclists and pedestrians.

My math teachers taught me the meaning of proportionality. Hopefully, your DOT officials were listening during that part of class, too.

Photo: A bicycle ambassador on Capitol Hill. Courtesy of the Alliance for Biking & Walking photo library.



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