Creating Laws: Far Less Appetizing than Making Sausage

I don’t talk about American federal policy very often on this blog, for two reasons. First, policy can get boring unless you’re a wonk like me, especially if you aren’t American. Second, often people can make more significant and lasting changes in their community through local action than by lobbying at the national level. However, there is one time that if you’re American, talking about national policy in bicycling is absolutely vital – during the reauthorization of the federal surface transportation bill. Although the darn thing changes names regularly, especially because it’s gone through several one-year extensions since 2009, this year, within the House of Representatives, it’s the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act. (If you want to read the whole mind-boggling thing, it’s here.) The Senate also has a transportation bill in the works, although it’s not as dire.

Although it seems absurd that just one law can have such a big influence over sustainable transportation in the country, it truly has such sway. Part of the reason is because many local programs are partly or mostly funded through federal dollars. Programs like Safe Routes to School leverage the power of the federal government at the local level by giving funding, technical assistance, and other information resources to local governments. The local governments can then use these unique resources to create programs to meet their specific communities’ needs. It’s truly a win-win situation. Similarly, many of the federal laws strongly influence local and state construction projects. For example, the current transportation bill requires states ensure methods of safe passage for pedestrians and cyclists when they work on a bridge that already has accommodations for pedestrians and cyclists. After all, if a bridge already has those accommodations, people are likely reliant on them and can’t just radically change their route because of construction. Federal laws like these are especially important because many roads suffer from a typical mish-mash of state, county, and local authorities with jurisdictions over them that can change from block to block. In my town alone, the major bicycle beltway “belongs” to both the city and county, which have very different priorities from one another. Having overarching federal laws ensures some amount of consistency.

Unfortunately, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act strips out all of those provisions. Safe Routes to School, gone. Many of the safety regulations protecting cyclists, gone. The League of American Bicyclists has a great summary of it, but I’ll mention the issues I find the most egregious.

First, the idea that transit funds cannot be used for anything bicycle-related is terrible. (This is on top of the bill not allowing highway trust fund money to be used on transit, but I digress.) Building bicycle lanes, installing bicycle racks at stations, and placing bicycle racks on buses are all ways to build a vibrant, sustainable transportation infrastructure. Transit agencies don’t want people to drive to rail and major bus stations because then they have to build expensive parking facilities. Metro in DC has explicitly said that they want to increase bike and foot traffic to stations for precisely those reasons. And this bill will keep them from doing that, making it so they have to spend more money on parking and less on keeping our rails safe.

Second, the bill will make a mockery of the “air quality” part of the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program run out of the Department of Transportation, even if the name doesn’t change. Under this bill, any project that someone could judge as potentially reducing traffic congestion, regardless of its effects on air pollution, would qualify. As a result, these essential funds that are often used for bicycling and public transit would probably go to building more highways instead. Which as anyone in the professional transportation world knows, but politicians don’t seem to care, actually increases rather than decreases traffic. In fact, destroying highways can actually lead to less congestion. (Perhaps we should suggest using the funds to get out the wrecking balls?) To change this program in this manner and even think of keeping “air quality” in the name is reaching new heights of hypocrisy.

Lastly, the Transportation Enhancements section is completely gone. This small section of the transportation bill – generally less than 1 percent of all transportation spending – is what politicians always point at when they complain that transportation spending is being used inappropriately on bike paths. Of course, the Republicans are quite proud of the fact that they are stripping out this section – on their press release about the bill, they trumpet that it “Eliminate mandates that states spend highway funding on non-highway activities.” However, despite their pride at this fact, the Transportation Enhancements section is critical to building a resilient transportation infrastructure that keeps people healthy and our economy strong against oil price shocks. The funding it provides to sidewalks, crosswalks, and bikeways benefits everyone by reducing the number of cars on the road, reducing pollution, and providing affordable means of transport to people of all income levels. It’s just good public policy. And this bill is very much not good policy.

So what can you do? It seems like right now, if you’re an American, the best option is to encourage your Senate representative to add an amendment to strengthen the bicycle and pedestrian sections in the Senate bill and encourage your House representative to oppose the House Bill completely. If you’re in certain districts of the House, you can also encourage them to pass the Petri amendment for the Transportation Improvement Program, which would restore many of the projects described above.

And if you’re not American? Please just keep working towards bicycle and pedestrian-friendly cities wherever you are – we’re all in this together.

One of my town's awesome bike bridges. This could potentially be closed in the case of construction on the accompanying road under the House bill.

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