By Charles Pekow
Something is going to have to happen this year in Washington regarding surface transportation legislation. No one knows what yet, though. Not only does the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) law expire Oct. 1, but the Highway Trust Fund is scheduled to run out of funds this summer. So Congress is going to have to act, even if it just means extending the current law or borrowing money.
Though Congress has taken public testimony, no one has introduced a MAP-21 replacement or extension bill yet. But our national legislative body is hearing about the need for it to support bicycle infrastructure.
At a late March hearing of the Senate Environment & Public Works committee, Indianapolis Mayor Gregory Ballard, a Republican no less, asked the committee “to support our cities as we seek to build the bike lanes, trails, and greenways that serve all the people who want to live, work and raise their families in the new American city.” But, of course, he wants local control of the federal money. “I encourage this committee to continue our nation’s commitment to the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), funding all modes of transportation, with the understanding that safe and viable options for people on bikes, transit and on foot are increasingly important in today’s cities – and please keep those decisions in the hands of local leaders,” he pleaded.
And Congress was told that the reduced level of funding in MAP-21 (when programs such as Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to School were combined into TAP) is hurting the effort. Our “greatest concern with TAP is that when it was created in MAP-21, the…funding levels were lowered from their previous levels, which has hampered our ability to implement community projects,” complained Dave Gula, principal planner for the Wilmington (DE) Planning Council. Like his Indiana counterpart, Gula wants local control with federal money, saying the Congestion Mitigation & Air Quality program “would be more effective in addressing these problems if metropolitan planning organizations were given a more prominent voice in funding decisions.”
Some members of Congress are getting the message on the importance of them supporting bicycle infrastructure, even it they want to retain federal control. Members have introduced several bills that would promote cycling. Though none have moved, they are picking up support. The goal involves including them in whatever major surface transportation package Congress eventually approves, says Caron Whitaker, vice president of government relations for the League of American Bicyclists (LAB).
Most notably, the Safe Streets Act of 2014 (S. 2004) would require that all state and local governments expedite the deployment of highway construction projects consider the needs of all transportation users; including cyclists, public transit riders, pedestrians and anybody else in their transit plans. (The Utah Dept. of Transportation already decided on its own to do this; see the March issue of Cycling Utah) Senators Mark Begich (D-AK) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced the measure early in February. It would not apply retroactively or to projects substantially planned before it passes. The bill was referred to the Committee on Environment & Public Works. Only Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) later signed on as a cosponsor. A similar bill failed in 2012. Last June, Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA) introduced the same bill in the House, which was referred to the Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I) Subcommittee on Highways & Transit. The committee hasn’t acted on it, though the bill is gradually picking up support, with 33 cosponsors, none from Utah or Idaho.
Also, Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) introduced the New Opportunities for Bicycle and Pedestrian Infrastructure Financing Act of 2014 (H.R. 3738). The bill would establish an $11 million pilot program to make loans and loan guarantees to eligible entities to carry out bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects. Ideas could include rail-trail conversions, bikeshare, parking, signals, linking trails and more. At least 25 percent of the money would have to go to low-income communities. The bill was referred to the T&I Subcommittee on Highways & Transit.
Albio’s bill picked up 37 cosponsors – again nobody from Utah or Idaho. LAB is thrilled with the idea. “We want to make sure all communities benefit from biking and walking infrastructure,” Whitaker says. “We think biking and walking can offer new networks for low-income America.”
On the other hand, federal bike support is not without at least one enemy on Capitol Hill. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) introduced the 414 Plan Act of 2014 (H.R. 4153), referred to T&I. Forbes designed the bill to “expedite the deployment of highway construction projects” by removing federal requirements – but not the ones the officials from Delaware and Indiana were asking for. Forbes’ bill would eliminate TAP and requirements for bicycle and pedestrian walkways in highway projects.
“We don’t see it as much of a threat,” Whitaker says. Probably not. Nearly a month after Forbes introduced it, no one cosponsored it.