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
"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
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
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
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.