The future of federal funding for bicycling remains uncertain and problematic — both for the balance of the fiscal year that ends on September 30, and for the next five or six years that would likely be included in a new transportation bill now being shaped by the U.S. Congress.

In each of the last two fiscal years, the federal government invested more than $1 billion in bicycling and walking infrastructure and programs. While these sums amount to less than two percent of total annual transportation spending, they are nevertheless unprecedented.

This money has paid for thousands of miles of new bike paths, lanes, bike/ped bridges, dirt trails, and the development of programs such as Safe Routes to School. While state and local investments are essential, too, federal funding has become the single largest source of dollars to make U.S. bicycling safe, convenient, and appealing.

Three points of debate

The uncertainty of future bike funding is linked to three things: 1) the mammoth federal deficit, 2) a growing shortfall in the federal Highway Trust Fund, and 3) assertions that bike riders don’t contribute to the Trust Fund and therefore, shouldn’t benefit from its proceeds.

The prospect of continuing, large annual deficits has led Congress to comb nearly all categories of spending in search of potential cuts. Every program is being scrutinized.

Meanwhile, the Highway Trust Fund continues to get its dollars from the federal gasoline fuel excise tax — an 18.4-cents-per-gallon levy that hasn’t increased since 1994. The money collected is deposited into the Highway Trust Fund and then distributed…primarily to the states. Today, the Trust Fund is running an annual deficit that is projected to exceed $10 billion. As a result, annual transportation expenditures of about $45 billion will need to be reduced to $35 billion unless new revenue can be found.

As of this writing, a revenue boost seems unlikely, and Congress is contemplating a six-year federal transportation bill with total spending of $200 billion — a figure that falls far short of the six-year, $286 billion sum approved in 2005.

Nearly all adult bike riders drive and contribute to the Highway Trust Fund when they buy gasoline. Each time we ride instead of drive, one less car moves on the road and both congestion and roadway wear and tear are reduced. There’s another key point here: the Trust Fund covers no more than half the cost of building and operating our highway system: the balance comes from other government funding programs. But despite these countering arguments, some members of Congress are pushing to eliminate federal bike project funding, saying that bike riders don’t pay and therefore, shouldn’t benefit.

Bikes Belong views federal funding for bicycling as one of the best investments our government can make. In 2010, for example, this funding supported more than 3,000 projects in all 50 states — projects that not only efficiently and safely move hundreds of thousands of Americans each day, but also reduce road congestion, air pollution, and obesity. If every one of these federal bicycling dollars were reallocated to highway construction, they would pay for less than eight miles of urban, multi-lane highway.

Looking ahead

While bicycling and walking funds for this fiscal year have not been cut dramatically (as of this writing), the federal government is currently considering a major round of transportation rescissions that would require each state to give back millions of dollars that it has received but
not spent. Historically, these rescissions have produced disproportionate cuts of bike projects, as some state transportation departments have focused almost completely on building new roadways for cars and trucks.

Bikes Belong may call on our supporters to contact their representatives in Congress to make sure any cuts are shared across all transportation programs.

Longer term, we’re confident that government agencies at all levels will increasingly recognize the cost-effectiveness and multiple benefits provided by investments in bicycling infrastructure and program. We believe Congress will see the value proposition and find the money necessary to support the best bike projects and programs.