Federal funding for bicycling: The challenges continue

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The long-term status of federal transportation funding, including support for bicycling infrastructure, remains uncertain. Current funding is guided by a law called SAFETEA-LU that was originally approved in July 2005, expired in September 2009, and has been extended by Congress eight times since then. The latest extension expires March 31, 2012—making the next few months a crucial period for federal bicycling advocacy.

SAFETEA-LU has provided unprecedented support for bicycling. Its funding has been combined with state and local money to build thousands of new bike paths, lanes, bridges, tunnels and trails in all 50 states. An ambitious Safe Routes to School program has been successfully launched. Bicycling for short trips and commuting has grown coast-to-coast, providing a series of important, cost-saving benefits for a modest investment that is slightly more than one percent of overall federal transportation funding.

Today the future of this investment is far from guaranteed, as Congress wrestles with a projected deficit in the Highway Trust Fund that provides the bulk of federal transportation dollars as well as an overall annual deficit that hit a record $1.3 trillion in the last fiscal year.

Congress appears to be closer to passing a new, long-term bill than it has been since 2008. Current proposals for that bill don’t back bicycling in the ways that SAFETEA-LU has. A small sum of dedicated funding has been key to bicycling’s recent growth and safety advances, but none of the current draft versions of the next bill include this element.

Last fall we were successful in defeating several Congressional attacks on dedicated funding for bicycling and walking. While these investments are popular with local governments and the public, some U.S. senators and representatives (as well as state departments of transportation leaders) want to restrict federal transportation spending to highway construction and repairs.

When Congress reconvenes in late January, their transportation priority will be Federal Aviation Administration legislation. Once (and if) they get through that, they are likely to turn to the overall transportation bill.

By the end of March, Congress must either approve a new, multi-year bill or extend SAFETEA-LU again. Either way, bicycling investments are likely to be challenged.

Bikes Belong will likely issue a call to action to our members to weigh in with their members of Congress about the economic and overall benefits of continuing this dedicated support for bicycling infrastructure. The Peopleforbikes.org support group—now nearly a half million strong—will rally as well. Finally, the annual National Bike Summit, held March 20-22 in Washington, will serve as a well-timed opportunity to reiterate our key points on Capitol Hill.

The federal investment in bicycling provides exceptional benefits for very few dollars. It reduces road congestion and air pollution, and helps individuals and government agencies save money. It directly addresses our obesity crisis—one of the most daunting challenges we face today. Stay tuned for information on how to preserve this essential investment in our country’s future.