Following the sweeping changes in political leadership at the state and federal levels, cycling advocates are assessing the new challenge to maintain funding for bike lanes, education and other improvements for bikers and pedestrians.
The conventional wisdom suggests the Republican takeover of the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate, based largely on a campaign of cost-cutting and lower taxes, will threaten to stop the flow of money to pay for bike trails and similar projects.
State Sen. Alberta Darling, a River Hills Republican, who is likely to lead the Joint Finance Committee, all but confirmed it.
“It was loud and clear during the election, the main priorities are to cut government spending and debt and create jobs,” Darling said. “Bikes paths are pretty far down the list for Republicans and Democrats.”
On the national level, the defeat of U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, is expected to hamper efforts to keep dollars going to states through the Transportation Enhancements and Bicycle and Pedestrian Facilities Program.
In 2010, more than $1 billion in federal money was allocated to bicycle and pedestrian projects. Wisconsin receives nearly $9 million in federal money each year from those appropriations, and adds $2.5 million more in state dollars approved in the 2009-2011 budget. In addition, millions of dollars in federal grants from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program have been used for projects to improve biking and pedestrian options.
Projects to improve the Hank Aaron State Trail, the Oak Leaf Trail, the Interurban Trail and the network of paths in Madison all have been supported with federal money in recent years.
Dave Schlabowske, the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the City of Milwaukee, speculated the change in leadership will bring a change in support for those types of enhancements.
Rep. John Boehner of Ohio “has opposed using federal transportation funds on bicycle projects, which he likens to ‘beautification’ projects, not transportation projects,” Schlabowske wrote in a blog post. “The next transportation bill could look very different from the last one in which bicycle and pedestrian funding was increased.”
Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, said Oberstar’s defeat in Minnesota is the toughest blow to cycling advocates. “I’m sad because he is a true champion of bicyclists’ issues in Congress. Over the past 20 years, you can trace many of the gains we’ve made straight back to the desk of Jim Oberstar.”
Clarke cited the Safe Routes to School program, state bicycle coordinator positions and the planning requirements for bicyclists at the state and regional levels.
At the state level, it’s likely bicycling advocates will have to pedal harder to convince Governor-elect Scott Walker and the Republican leadership to keep spending millions on bike paths and lanes and to follow through on the Complete Streets legislation approved in the last budget. That law requires accommodations for bicycles and pedestrians in road projects funded with state and federal money.
In the past, Walker opposed a bike lane on the Hoan Bridge and took a moderate tone on bike infrastructure funded with federal cash.
“The bottom line is I don’t have a problem with it as long as it doesn’t take away from fixing existing infrastructure,” Walker said. “If we fix the crumbling roads and bridges, then I’m willing to look at other things like bike paths.”
Kevin Hardman, the executive director of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, said the change in leadership in Madison is an opportunity to draw new political advocates to support cycling.
“I’m looking forward to forging a lot of new relationships,” he said. “I firmly believe that bicycling and bicycling in Wisconsin is a bipartisan issue.”
Hardman noted, as did Schlabowske, that Rep. Tom Petri , a Wisconsin Republican, won re-election in Congress and has been supportive of cycling issues.
Projects to increase bicycling should appeal to both Republicans and Democrats, said John Burke, the president of Trek Bicycle Corp., based in Waterloo. The company employs 1,000 people in Wisconsin and 1,700 globally. Along with other bicycle-based companies, including Planet Bike, Pacific and Saris, the industry accounts for a nearly $600 million annual economic impact in the state, according to a 2006 report from the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.
For the state economy, investments in cycling are cost-effective ways to improve transportation and reduce health care costs, Burke said. Those facts should be “bike-partisan,” important to legislators on both sides of the aisle, he said.
“I think politicians ought to look at increasing funding for cycling in the future,” Burke said. “It’s a simple solution and there aren’t a lot of simple solutions these days.”
State Rep. Robin Vos, a Burlington Republican, agrees that financial support for bicycling and its related industry is good for the state’s economy. As a potential leader of the Joint Finance Committee, however, he shared Darling’s view that spending has to be prioritized.
Fixing potholes, repairing bridges and ensuring that buses operate properly come before bike paths as necessary items for transportation dollars, he said.
“My thought is that sometimes the transportation fund has been used to pay for programs not directly related to transportation,” Vos said. “The idea of having a mass of people biking to work is not going to happen in the foreseeable future. It’s more recreational than transportation.”