The annual National Bike Summit convenes in Washington this week, with threats to government funding for bike and pedestrian programs leading the agenda.
“They want to pick on bike funding as an issue in which they’re going to draw a line in the sand,” said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, which hosts the summit. “We think it’s perverse and we’re not sure why we are in the crosshairs, but we are and we’re responding in kind.”
In an era of austerity in Congress and state capitals, mandates that a fraction of federal funding be spent on bike paths, bike lanes, walkways and pedestrian bridges have been called into question by those who advocate putting scarce resources into highways and bridges.
A House proposal that would have abolished the 20-year-old Transportation Enhancements program, which mandated the spending, stalled last month. The Senate transportation bill approved last week creates a new competitive grant program open to local governments and agencies for bike and pedestrian programs.
With state transportation departments feeling the crunch of dwindling gas-tax revenue, some House and Senate Republicans argued that states be given latitude to spend enhancement money elsewhere.
Clarke said a compromise in the Senate bill tilted the funding program toward county and city governments, which he said tend to take a more favorable view of cycling and walking programs than do officials who bear statewide responsibility for highways and bridges.
“It’s mayors and city councils and county commissions that are really getting it,” Clarke said. “What they’re running up against in community after community is the state departments of transportation, who are not so committed to or keen on bicycling or walking, with a few notable exceptions.”
“For us, that shift to as local a level as possible is very welcome,” he said, “and we think local elected officials will make smart decisions as to how they use those funds.”
The Obama administration and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, himself a cyclist, have been supportive of dedicated bike and pedestrian funding.
The summit will hear from LaHood on Wednesday and from members of the Congressional Bike Caucus, led by U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), before advocates fan out Thursday for meetings with members of Congress or their staffers on Capitol Hill.
Clarke said the meetings will allow his group to put a human face on the issue “and represent tens of thousands of e-mails and calls and letters that have been generated by this threat for bicycling and walking programs.”
The enhancement program doled out $927.5 million in federal dollars in fiscal 2011, about 2 percent of the total $40.2 billion highway budget. Between the program’s inception in 1992 and 2010, states used $8.7 billion in enhancement funds, about 84 percent of the money made available.
In the Washington region, enhancement funding was used to build a bike and pedestrian bridge over Veirs Mill Road at Aspen Hill Road; restore locks and the adjacent towpath of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal; restore the buffalo sculptures on the Dumbarton Bridge and the lion sculptures on the Taft Bridge; transform an abandoned rail line into the Capital Crescent Trail; and build bridges to carry the Bethesda Trolley Trail over interstates 270 and 495.