For the last few days Twitter, Facebook and email has been alive with action alerts on bicycle issues. The first surge came around the July 4th holiday weekend. It seems that the Federal government is in the process of a rescission of funds from state transportation departments. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, this makes sense as the Treasury is dancing along the edge of a cliff trying to manage cash flow as we stumble toward national default. A rescission is where the Federal government takes back any funds not yet spent or obligated. The issue for bicycle advocates is that much of this funding was specifically targeted toward bicycle and pedestrian projects and the fear was that state transportation departments would prioritize motor vehicle over other modes when giving back the money.
Then yesterday another round of action alerts as the House Transportation Committee rolled out a proposal for the transportation reauthorization bill. Not only does this bill make substantial cuts in total funding, it eliminates specific mandates or “set-asides” for things like bicycle trails, safe routes to schools, etc. The approach is to provide funds to the state transportation agencies, allowing them to decide how to allocate. In addition, the proposal includes provisions for “streamlining” major projects (read new highways) by allowing simultaneous studies and reviews like environmental assessments.
- Streamlines the project delivery process by cutting bureaucratic red-tape, delegating more decision making authority to states, allowing federal agencies to review transportation projects concurrently, and setting hard deadlines for federal agencies to approve projects.
- Reforms the surface transportation programs by consolidating or eliminating approximately 70 programs that are duplicative or do not serve a federal purpose.
- No longer requires states to spend highway funding on non-highway activities, but permits them to fund those activities if they so choose.
- Provides states the flexibility to fund their highest project priorities, but holds them accountable for those decisions through performance measures.
Insert Irony Here
Among the tweets and email came this insight from fellow (but more famous) blogger Elliott:
The link takes you to a Bike Portland article about the transportation proposal. The article includes an image of the proposal’s cover.
Irony indeed. Irony on many levels. Not only is this a picture of the same old tired direction of U.S. transportation but it shows an empty highway. Hey look everybody a shiny new highway for you to use. Or is it a prescient look at where we are going to end up: lots of empty highways?
I’m not sure that’s the right word. Ambivalence has connotations of passivity. There is an energetic (and sometimes violent) internal mental debate going on right now. My inner libertarian ranting about fiscal discipline in response to my inner Yehuda arguing about the benefits of cycling.
Realization that this transportation bill does nothing for true fiscal discipline. It merely preserves the failed outcomes of the Highway Trust Fund. If it passes, we will most likely continue getting more and more pavement dedicated to motor vehicles. We could see transit projects languish or disappear. We could see a halt in what little mode shift we’ve experienced.
I grow weary of the constituency approach to rational transportation planning. But given the near monopoly of influence that the highway interests have over transportation, perhaps we should continue fighting and making noise.