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                       Congress weighs funding boost for biking facilities

                        Proponents see a healthier environment. Opponents say highway
                                      repairs are more important.
 

                                          By Michael D. Towle
                                      INQUIRER WASHINGTON BUREAU

                      WASHINGTON -- Last summer, Amanda Smith got on her bike in
                      Portland, Ore., and rode 3,600 miles to Washington, D.C., to
                      demonstrate the benefits of cycling.

                      For most of her journey, Smith shared the road with cars and trucks.
                      In some large cities, she had to abandon her bike altogether.

                      "It seemed like there were hardly any bike trails or bike lanes
                      anywhere," said Smith, 20, of Colleyville, Texas, whose trip raised
                      $2,000 for Bike-Aid, an environmental organization.

                      Smith is one of millions of Americans who have fallen in love with the
                      bicycle in recent years. Now, these bike advocates are hoping to turn
                      their passion into billions in new federal aid for biking.

                      Over the next few months, Congress will shape a major
                      highway-spending bill and, in the process, will decide how much to
                      spend on new bike trails, bike lanes and cycling-related facilities over
                      the next six years.

                      About 105 million people own bikes, and four million ride them to
                      work. Biking advocates say that if bike paths and lanes were more
                      common, accessible and interconnected, an additional 17 million
                      people might take their bikes to work.

                      That's not an outrageous estimate, some say, considering that half the
                      nation's labor force lives within a 30-minute bike ride to work.

                      The environmental benefits of that trend would be enormous, they
                      argue. Biking would take pressure off highways and mass-transit
                      systems and offer significant benefits in reducing pollution.

                      Proponents also argue that there are safety and health reasons for the
                      government to expand and improve bike paths and lanes.

                      About 16 percent of all fatalities on American roads are pedestrians
                      and bicyclists.

                      "When people walk out their front door, they should have a choice of
                      whether to take a car, bus, train, or bike to wherever they are going,"
                      said Beth Kirsch, campaign coordinator for Bikes Belong, a coalition
                      in Washington of several major cycling organizations.

                      "Right now, there are too many people out there that don't have
                      choices."

                      But the car has deep roots in America's culture and economy, and
                      bike advocates face a challenge in their efforts to divert more federal
                      money to improving bike transportation.

                      Opponents say the federal government should not spend money on
                      bike paths and other recreational amenities when the nation's highway
                      system badly needs repairs. Moreover, they object to spending
                      dollars from the highway bill on bike paths, because the money
                      comes from the federal gas tax.

                      "We are not against bike trails. We just think they should be funded in
                      a different manner," said Cheryl Uram, a spokeswoman for the
                      American Highway Users Alliance, a group supported mainly by
                      industries involved in highway construction.

                      "The money . . . is being collected under the pretense that it will go to
                      improve the roads and bridges. We are losing over 42,000 lives a
                      year on our roads because their condition is poor," said Uram.

                      "A bike trail is a nice thing to have, but when you're losing lives, we
                      need to send this money to where it is needed most."

                      The law that controls how all that transportation money is spent is
                      called the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, a 1991
                      statute with a name so long and cumbersome it frequently is referred
                      to as ISTEA, or "Ice Tea."

                      Congress is in the process of reauthorizing ISTEA. The law expired
                      Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 1997.

                      The House has voted to extend the old law six months, giving the
                      House and Senate time to work out their differences. The Senate still
                      is drafting a new ISTEA and has yet to draw up an extension.

                      ISTEA directs how about $30 billion in federal funds will be spent
                      annually. Nearly all of it comes from the federal tax of 18.3 cents that
                      Americans pay on every gallon of gasoline.

                      While 4.3 cents goes toward reducing the deficit, the remaining 14
                      cents goes to transportation investments.

                      It used to be that every nickel collected went solely for highways. But
                      when ISTEA was authorized in 1991, it allowed, for the first time,
                      spending on projects that boosted or enhanced other modes of
                      transportation. About $450 million a year since 1991 has been spent
                      on "transportation enhancements," including such matters as limiting
                      rainwater erosion, acquiring historic sites related to highways, or
                      removing billboards.

                      Also among those "other modes" is bicycling. Since 1991, the
                      government has spent about $1 billion for bike paths, on- and
                      off-road cycling, bike lanes on streets and roadways, and facilities for
                      cyclists, such as bike stands.

                      Biking advocates across the nation have far more ambitious plans.

                      "We cannot just continue building roads," said Glenn Gadbois,
                      executive director of the Texas Bicycle Coalition.

                      "For a small investment, we can create a diverse system for
                      transportation in Texas that provides a solution to problems with
                      pollution and congestion. I think it's clear that just pouring concrete is
                      not going to address either one of those issues."

                      Congress seems to agree.

                      Pending House and Senate ISTEA bills call for increased spending on
                      such enhancements. The House Transportation Committee's
                      three-year bill would spend $575 million through 2000. The six-year
                      Senate bill would spend about $550 million through 2000 and $583
                      million from 2000 to 2003.

                      Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D., Ore.), a former bike mechanic and avid
                      cyclist, said he would like to see ISTEA help America move toward
                      a system of interstate bike routes, so it would be easier for cyclists
                      such as Smith to travel from city to city.

                      The bicycle industry says the federal government's commitment to
                      trails is helping it grow. Of the 105 million Americans who own bikes,
                      53 million ride them at least once a week. The industry estimates that
                      ridership is growing at a rate of 2 percent per year. Sales of bikes
                      also have been booming, growing nearly 60 percent since 1985.