For House GOP, Safer Streets Are the New “Bridge to Nowhere”

Funding to make biking and walking safer has taken something of a beating in both the House and Senate transportation bills. The fate of the most significant federal bike-ped programs — Safe Routes to School, Transportation Enhancements, and Recreational Trails — is still very much in doubt. Under the Senate bill, passed Wednesday, local agencies would at least have greater access to the funds that remain for these programs. At last glance, the House bill completely obliterated dedicated bike-ped funding.

A House GOP staffer said bike-ped programs, which make it safer to, for instance, cross the street, are the new "Bridge to Nowhere." Photo: ##http://onlinemanuals.txdot.gov/txdotmanuals/lad/images/4-69.jpg##Texas DOT##

The uncertainty over bike-ped funding will continue as long as the House struggles to finalize its bill. At a panel discussion earlier this week, one GOP aide turned some heads when he characterized bike-ped issues as this year’s “Bridge to Nowhere” — that is, the poster child, in the eyes of his party, for wasteful spending. (The actual Bridge to Nowhere — funded by an earmark in the 2005 transpo bill — inspired the proposed ban on earmarks, which failed but was nonetheless observed in the current reauthorization efforts.)

As a comparison, it’s absurd — bike-ped infrastructure delivers tremendous value, dollar-for-dollar, compared to regular highways, let alone enormous boondoggles. Meanwhile, state DOTs continue to waste billions building highways that really do go nowhere.

Bike-ped spending is also minuscule compared to earmarks. “Earmarks made up something like 8 to 10 percent of the cost of an already substantial transportation bill,” Darren Flusche, policy analyst at the League of American Bicyclists, told Streetsblog. “By contrast, bicycling and walking receive only 1.5 percent of federal transportation spending.”

“For roughly the cost of the Bridge to Nowhere alone, communities across all fifty states built over one thousand Transportation Enhancements projects last year,” Flusche added.

Members of Congress attacking the legitimacy of cycling infrastructure is nothing new. But the perception of street safety programs as unnecessary frills used to be something of a fringe position. Now it’s the dominant view of the Republican majority.

Consider that all of these programs facing potential elimination were included in SAFETEA-LU, the $285 billion transportation bill adopted in 2005. That bill was passed by a Republican House and a Republican Senate, and signed into law by a Republican president.

The current GOP hostility to safe streets programs doesn’t align with conservative values like efficient spending or decentralized decision making. After all, funding for bike-ped projects is highly sought after from local governments. “TE, SRTS and Rec Trails are the only programs where locals get a real look in on state transportation spending,” said Flusche. That promise of local control was enough to get Thad Cochran, a conservative Republican from Mississippi, to co-sponsor a popular bike-ped amendment to the current Senate bill.

With representatives from both parties, as well as the president, exhibiting a pathological aversion to raising the gas tax, the fight over how to spend scarce transportation funding dollars is going to persist. And for the House GOP that seems to mean an entrenched opposition to funding cost-effective, locally-focused transportation projects.

A Democratic aide on the same panel said that although an amendment restoring bike-ped funding was defeated in committee, it would not be the last attempt made in the House. The debate will go on, and advocates for safer streets will keep on fighting.

  • Keith Laughlin

    It is overly simplistic to imply that House Republicans oppose investment in active transportation. That is certainly the position of the House leadership. But many rank-and-file Republicans support such investment because they have seen the tangible benefits it produces in their districts. And they know that such projects are wildly popular with their constituents. A key question will be whether the House leadership will let Republicans vote for the best interest of their district without fear of retribution. If that were to occur, it would be possible to get majority support for continued federal investment in active transportation despite the opposition of the Republican House leadership. If all Democrats supported such investment, which is not unlikely, it would only take 25-30 Republicans out of 240 for such a measure to pass. When a vote on Transportation Enhancements came before the House in 2003, it passed by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 320-90; with 100% of Democrats and 60% of Republicans supporting the program. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to assume that 20% of Republicans would still support such investment today if allowed to vote their conscience. And that may be a reason why the House Republican leadership is unlikely to let such a vote occur.

  • Chris Morfas

    @de418ab1c37d05e08691efb91ef4e6c0:disqus  It sure would be great to know which Reeps voted to save/kill enhancements in the past when we bicyclists are making Hill visits this week.

  • Allen

    “It doesn’t seem far-fetched to assume that 20% of Republicans would
    still support such investment today if allowed to vote their conscience.”

    How often do Republicans vote with their conscience? Far more than the Democrats, their votes tend to be block votes down to a man, except for oddballs like Ron Paul.

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