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The Incredible Hypocrisy of the AAA

9/26/2010 4:17:56 PM

Tags: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, American Automobile Association, Federal Highway Trust Fund, funding for multi-use trails, Carolyn Szczepanski

RTClogoA few weeks ago, Keith Laughlin was flipping through his latest issue of AAA World, the magazine published by the American Automobile Association. Like millions of U.S. residents, the president of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a member of the AAA, the nation's largest motoring and travel organization. But one article stopped Laughlin in his tracks.

Last month, at the Pro Walk Pro Bike conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Laughlin shared his chagrin with hundreds — and the entire audience gasped at the incredible hypocrisy. In just a matter of days, that outrage turned into a national campaign that's already caught the attention of top brass at the AAA.

So what did that controversial article say? Well, it came from Don Gagnon, the president and CEO of AAA Mid-Atlantic. In the July/August editorial, Gagnon argued that non-motorized projects, like the multi-use paths enjoyed by countless Americans and promoted by the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy, shouldn’t get so much as a single cent from the Federal Highway Trust Fund.

Now, the Federal Highway Trust Fund isn't quite as specific as it sounds — that pot of money is filled, not only by levies on the trucking industry, but also by the gas taxes we all pay at the pump. It's not only used for highways, either. In fact, a portion of the revenues go straight into a Mass Transit Fund that boosts public transportation options. Another portion — best described as a tiny sliver — bankrolls biking and walking projects, too.

After reading Gagnon's piece, Laughlin immediately shot off a letter to the ill-informed — or willfully ignorant — company. He pointed out that millions of Americans are cyclists, pedestrians and trail-lovers, in addition to being motorists. He noted that more than 19,000 miles of trails have been funded through the Trust Fund on a meager budget of just a billion dollars per year. Yes, the Fund is facing a $89 billion shortfall, Laughlin conceded, but picking the already threadbare pockets of non-motorized projects will barely throw dust into that deficit hole.

Robert Darbelnet, president of AAA, was quick to respond to Laughlin’s letter, but didn’t address Laughlin's concerns. Darbelnet didn’t disavow the editorial’s statements. He didn't accept Laughlin's invitation to stand with RTC in calling for a doubling of funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects in the upcoming federal transportation bill. So Laughlin went public with his concern, sounding the alarm to the advocates and professionals gathered at Pro Walk Pro Bike.

“At the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, our goal is that, by 2020, 90 percent of Americans live within three miles of a trail system,” he told the crowd. “If we’re going to do it, we have to have sustained federal investment in building safe places to walk and bike. And we have to be aware that those sources of funds are currently endangered.”

“The Federal Highway Trust Fund is close to insolvency and there’s no political consensus on a long-term fix,” he continued. “What it comes down to is the highway funding pie is not growing, so the highway lobby wants to eat our slice. They get about 80 cents on the dollar. We get a penny-and-a-half. But that 80 cents isn’t enough. They’re greedy enough that they want our penny-and-a-half, as well.”

“At this point,” he added, “I don’t think we can sit and do nothing. We really have to turn this threat into an opportunity.”

Before the conference participants had finished their dessert, RTC had flipped the switch on a new petition campaign, asking AAA to disavow its stated intent to rob trails of critical federal dollars. To get the crowd fired up to add their names to the campaign, Laughlin held up a AAA postcard that arrived in his colleague’s mailbox just the day before.

“What it says is ‘Double your opportunity to save money at AAA,'” Laughlin said, reading from the back of the card. “It’s an ad to get people to sign up for AAA auto insurance and get them to sign up for their credit card. And what graphic did they use to highlight this ability to double your opportunity? Two people on a tandem bicycle!”

You guessed it: The whole room gasped.

“This is the organization that is adopting anti-bicycle policies and, at the same time, they have the audacity to use a picture of people on a bicycle to market their automobile products,” Laughlin said. “If that’s not enough to get people motivated to raise their voices, I’m not sure what it would take.”

Whether it was the galling hypocrisy or the very-real threat to federal funding, thousands have raised their voices. Now, less than two weeks into the campaign, more than 20,000 people have signed on to the RTC petition. If you’re ready to add your name, click here.

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