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Rolling Backwards

House Republicans craft a transportation bill that drastically reduces funding for bicycle-related programs

by Erin Pihlaja on May 24, 2012


May is National Bike month, and cyclists all over the country are agitated. After the Senate passed a federal transportation bill this past March, House Republicans answered back with a proposal that significantly slashed the budget, then proceeded to pass a 90-day extension to set up a conference committee between the two houses. The committee is currently working on a new bipartisan bill that has cycling advocacy groups feeling particularly deflated.

“This bill is a train wreck as far as bike-pedestrian funding goes. There will be a reduction for federal, dedicated funding for bicycle-pedestrian initiatives no matter what,” said Brian Kehoe, executive director of the New York Bicycling Coalition (NYBC). Kehoe is not optimistic about the outcome of a bipartisan bill. “The Senate bill is called  Map-21 [Moving Ahead For Progress in the 21st Century], and it’s a better version than the one between the House and the Senate. It preserves dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian modes even though it is at disproportionately lower levels than previous transportation bills. No matter what we’re looking at, a loss of funding on the horizon.”

“We’ve seen so many extensions of this bill dating back to 2008 or 2009,” said David Jukins, deputy director of the Capital District Transportation Committee. “Some people predict that we won’t see any final results until after the election in 2012 or maybe even as late as 2014. Until we know what this bill looks like, and what kind of bill it is, it’s hard to say what we’re dealing with. There will be program consolidations no matter what.”

Program consolidations mean that parties who are interested in improvements to transportation issues will have to compete for the same source of funding. “The CDTC doesn’t compare highway directly against bike, pedestrian, or transit projects. However, these cuts do take away a little bit of money for enhancements—‘Safe Routes to School,’ a dedicated source for bike-ped projects, and livability projects such as streetscaping. It’s going to be more competitive and a little tighter,” Jukins said.

It’s that omission of a dedicated funding source that has cycling groups alarmed. “Up to this point these federal funds covered pathways, like multi-use paths for cyclists and pedestrians. It affects sharrows, bike lanes, and signage,” said Kehoe. He is worried that the competition for the funds will cause bike-friendly initiatives to lose out to other transportation needs.  “Bike lane or shoulder projects would be competing against another lane on the thruway or a bridge project. There is nothing out there available to replace the funding for these programs.”

It isn’t just a bias toward cycling that motivates Kehoe. “This federal dedicated funding saves lives,” he said. “I’m afraid of whatever bill comes out; if it’s bad, more people are going to get hit. Last year the number of bicycle fatalities and injuries went up for the first time in years.”

“Bicycling and Pedestrian Safety,” a report published this May by NYBC board member Ivan Vamos, examines the costs associated with bicycle and pedestrian crashes in relation to the amount of funding given to transportation needs. In the report’s foreword, Kehoe writes, “Bicycling and walking are increasingly popular and in New York State and account for approximately 15 percent of travel mode share. These modes, however, account for a disproportionate share of traffic injuries, fatalities and resulting medical costs.”

The report continues, “The Alliance Report states that the annual expenditure targeted specifically for bicycle and pedestrian transportation in New York state was $31,163,146 or approximately $1.59 per capita (these figures are an average of 5 years’ data). In contrast $168,000,000 ($9.33 per capita) expenditures were made in New York state hospitals each year to treat those injured in bicycle and pedestrian crashes. This represents $5.39 of “hospital-based costs each year for each dollar spent on transportation improvements to prevent these crashes.”

The costs to help injured cyclists and pedestrians far exceeds the money spent to enhance bike-ped pathways, education, and all that goes into programs that affect how motor vehicles share the road with other modes of transportation. The suggestion is that we could decrease the amount of injuries and fatalities with more funding, not less.

In addition to saving lives and preventing hospitalizations, there are other benefits to being a bike-friendly community, said Matt Wempe, state and local advocacy coordinator of the League of American Bicyclists. The League has issued its Bicycle Friendly States report card since 2008, which ranks states across the country. New York state was ranked a dismal 42nd in “bike-friendliness” in 2012.

“At the community level, generally the bicycling trend is increasing,” Wempe said. “We looked at the largest communities in both very bike-friendly cities and in less bike-friendly cities, and found that in the cities where accessibility and access to bicycling was promoted, ridership increased the most.” Wempe noted that biking dramatically improved his own health and that public health care costs decrease as people become more physically fit. “There can also be economic increases to bike-friendly places. Colorado and Iowa have seen large increases of tourism due to their biking programs. It can impact local economies, as a catalyst to economic development of walkable and bikeable business districts,” he added.

“The genie is out of the bottle. People are riding bikes, and a lot of people have to,” said Kehoe. “I consider transportation options a civil right. Societies have a responsibility to provide viable transportation options to its citizens besides the automobile. If someone wants to go to the store or to work, they can choose to ride their bike. They don’t have to, but they should have the choice.”