At this point, we’re not expecting any movement on a transportation bill, in either house, before the August recess. (After that, get ready for a panicked frenzy of activity ahead of the September 30 deadline.)
From what we hear from Sen. Barbara Boxer’s staff, the EPW bill includes dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects. The House bill does not, though it does say that bike-ped projects will still be “eligible” for various pots of funding.
But “eligibility” is virtually meaningless without a federal mandate for spending. As the League of American Bicyclists points out in a new fact-sheet on eligibility, history shows that if the federal government tells states they “can” spend money on bike-ped – but they don’t have to – they don’t.
Indeed, all 50 states together spent just $40 million on bike-ped programs in the 18 years leading up to the passage of ISTEA in 1991, which created the three major sources of bike-ped funding. The states had complete freedom to use federal funds – with no state match – on bike-ped projects, but they simply didn’t.
Even today, programs that would appear to be tailor-made to fund bicycle and pedestrian projects – like the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ) – are rarely used on biking and walking. Only five percent of CMAQ money has gone toward biking and walking, despite their “eligibility” and obvious fit. When advocates talk about “dedicated funding,” they’re usually talking about three other programs, which spend more on bike-ped: Transportation Enhancements, Safe Routes to School, and the Recreational Trails Program.
What’s more, states tend to spend bike-ped money slowly, holding onto those funds until rescission time, when they’re asked to send money back to the federal government. Last year, Transportation Enhancements and CMAQ bore 44 percent of the rescission cuts nationwide – although those programs represent just 7.3 percent of total federal-aid highway funds.
Many states continue to express distaste for the federal mandate for bike-ped spending. Some states-rights supporters say states should be able to spend money on the programs they want, and not be forced by “Washington bureaucrats” to pay for projects their states don’t need.
But state DOTs can be just as bureaucratic and unaccountable to local-level needs as the feds.
“Many state DOTs are stuck in the 1950s,” said Darren Flusche, policy analyst at the League. “Without this kind of federal guidance, they’ll continue to be out of touch with the transportation needs of the 21st century.”
Besides, he added, the federal transportation bill isn’t about local control — it’s about setting federal transportation policy in accordance with national transportation priorities.
And even where state DOTs are pooh-poohing bike-ped projects and refusing to spend money on them, the cities inside those states are hungry for them. Indeed, according to the League report, 60 percent of the nation’s mayors want more bike-ped funding to help fight congestion and to improve livability and economic competitiveness.
Given the high demand for bicycle and pedestrian improvements – and the tight fist of state DOTs – funding for these programs has had to come from other sources. Those sources have included Congressional earmarks (now banned), the stimulus (now over), and TIGER grants (thankfully, onto its third round).