It was like waiting for the other shoe to drop—and when it did drop, it was even worse than expected. “It” is the new House Transportation bill, and it is a disaster for cycling, reversing decades of bicycle-friendly transportation policy.
A bit of background: In the 2006 election, the Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives, and Representative Jim Oberstar (D-MN), long a champion of cycling, assumed the Chair of the House Transportation Committee. Two years later, Democrats won the White House, and solidified their control of the House and Senate. Strong cycling advocates like Representatives Jim Oberstar and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) were now poised to transform transportation policy in this country, away from the old model of motor vehicle-centered infrastructure, and towards a new multimodal model, including infrastructure for rail, bicycling, walking, and of course, motor vehicles.
That all changed in the 2010 election. Republicans regained control of the House after a massive mid-term election shellacking of the Democrats. Even Representative Oberstar lost his re-election bid, after 36 years in Congress. With the Republicans firmly in control of the House, Representative John Mica (R-FL) assumed the Chair of the House Transportation Committee, and transportation policy was once again poised for a new era of change.
This week, we found out just how much of a change we are in for, and although cycling advocates were braced for some bad news, the new Transportation bill—its official title is “The American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act”—is far worse than what anybody had expected. Here are some details:
- Completely reverses 20 years of bicycle and pedestrian-friendly federal transportation policy.
- Completely eliminates the dedicated funding for the Transportation Enhancements program that funds the cycling and walking projects.
- Allows states to build bridges without safe access for cyclists and pedestrians, as previously required.
- Completely eliminates Bicycle and Pedestrian and Safe Routes to Schools coordinators in state DOTs.
- Repeals the Safe Routes to Schools program.
- Eliminates language that ensures that rumble strips “do not adversely affect the safety or mobility of bicyclists, pedestrians or the disabled.”
In place of these modest programs, the House Transportation Committee plans to roll the clock back to the days when bicycles were toys, and the roads were for cars. And that’s just the transportation part of the bill. There’s more: The bill links funding for transportation infrastructure to oil production. Here are the details.
- Permanently removes environmental regulatory barriers to American oil production and infrastructure development, and links infrastructure to oil production by funding motor vehicle transportation infrastructure with oil production revenues.
- Lifts current offshore drilling bans and requires leasing of new offshore areas.
- Promotes shale oil extraction research and development.
- Approves the Keystone XL pipeline rejected by President Obama in January.
- Opens the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration.
I think it’s pretty easy to connect the dots here and draw the conclusion that Big Oil—which spends millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions every year, but reaps billions of dollars in record profits—is afraid. Very afraid. It’s kind of funny when you think about it—the oil industry, which is enjoying the largest profits in human history, is afraid of a child on a bike. So afraid, that Representatives in Washington who are beholden to Big Oil will do whatever they can to make it less safe for children to get to school. Cycling has been steadily increasing in popularity among all age groups, and particularly so with young adults. We are a massive wave representing a fundamental shift in attitudes, and that is what frightens Big Oil. That child finding a safe route to school today might be the college student riding to class in a few years, and the young adult choosing to keep riding after graduation. Like the Terminator traveling back in time to stop John Connor, Big Oil is nipping that future in the bud by cutting Safe Routes to Schools today.
I think there’s an element of political posturing to all of this. After all, this is an election year, and both parties will be maneuvering to paint the other party in a bad light; this bill is but one example in an ongoing political battle for control of the Government. But the political posturing serves another purpose too—“cutting spending” is the latest angle for politicians looking for a way to sell the policies of their clients (cycling and walking received 1.6% of transportation funds in 2011). But regardless of the year, and regardless of whether it is marketed as “patriotism,” “energy independence,” or “cutting spending,” the policy always remains the same: keep subsidizing Big Oil, and keep up the pressure to cut environmental protections and open more areas to oil production.
The posturing isn’t limited to one party, either. Republicans may hope to paint President Obama as an anti-business President who does not support job-creating policies, while President Obama may wish to be seen as pro-jobs and pro-environment, but President Obama has opened up more new areas to oil production than his predecessor, Texas oil man George W. Bush. And the posturing isn’t limited by the taint of hypocrisy. A few weeks ago, Eric Cantor was spotted riding a bike. A politician photographed riding a bike can create the false impression of being bike-friendly, while still pushing anti-bike policies.
The news is not all bad. The League of American Bicyclists is working to stop the cycling program rollbacks. On Thursday, Representatives Tom Petri (R-WI) and Tim Johnson (R-IL) will sponsor an amendment that restores dedicated funding for Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to School, and the League is urging everybody with a stake in safe sidewalks, crosswalks, and bikeways to contact their Representative immediately to express your support for these programs. If this is something that is important to you, visit the League’s Take Action page to learn more about what you can do. It’s not too late to stop this attack on cycling—yet.
Research and drafting by Rick Bernardi, J.D.
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This article, Bicycling Under Attack in Congress, was originally publiched on Bicycling on February 1, 2012.