Frontrunner for Tenn. Gov Gets Bike Award — But Look Behind the Curtain

Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam is a biking mayor. He shows up almost every year to Bike to Work Day. The small-government Republican has allocated $20,000 for bike improvements.

Bill Haslam, left, helps unveil a sign announcing Knoxville as a Bicycle Friendly Community. ##http://www.bikeknoxville.blogspot.com/##Bike Knoxville##

Bill Haslam, left, helps unveil a sign announcing Knoxville as a Bicycle Friendly Community. Bike Knoxville

“Twenty thousand may not sound like a lot,” said Kelley Segars, Knoxville’s Principal Transportation Planner. “But it meant that we could put up our first three signed bike routes.”

This week, the League of American Bicyclists named Knoxville one of its “Bicycle Friendly Communities” and Mayor Haslam was there to unveil the sign. ACS numbers show bike commuting in Knoxville has tripled since 2007. [PDF] Census data shows the city’s bike usage is twice the national average.

The credit for that goes at least as much to Segars and other bike advocates as it does to Mayor Haslam. But Haslam is the one that’s going to be Tennessee’s next governor.

Polls show him 23 percentage points ahead of his Democratic opponent, beer businessman Mike McWherter.

Before you get too excited though, let’s take a look at his other positions. Haslam is an oilman from the family that founded the Pilot Corporation, a Knoxville-based petroleum company that owns a chain of truck stops. Despite his pro-bike leanings, his apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree.

Democrat McWherter has taken a stronger position than Haslam in favor of transit funding, a big issue for the Nashville area, which is expecting major population expansion in the next 25 years. Haslam has been hesitant to promise dedicated funding for public transportation, despite pleas from area mayors.

And Haslam opposes both tolling and increasing the gas tax, although Tennessee’s state gas tax is well below the national average. The combined state and federal gas tax there is just 39.8 cents, compared to the national average of 47.7 cents. These issues will have a profound impact on transportation habits and sprawl. While Haslam may have been a bike-friendly mayor, cyclists and potential cyclists will suffer if his policies as governor encourage outward expansion instead of compact development that favors walking and biking.

As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has made painfully clear this month, governors ultimately call the shots when it comes to many of the most important transportation policy decisions. Stay tuned to Streetsblog for more news on governors’ races around the country. Next week we’ll start profiling the top elections to keep your eye on.