Commuters expecting a swifter drive to work from the $286.4 billion “highway bill” President Bush signed last Wednesday may be surprised to learn millions of those dollars will actually fund recreational bike paths.
Shuffled amidst almost 6,500 “high priority” earmarks slipped into the bill by members of Congress is $255 million specifically set aside for bikeways as opposed to roads, interstate highways or mass-transit projects.
A share of the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gasoline tax that motorists pay every time they fill up their car, which ostensibly goes to the so-called federal Highway Trust Fund, will instead go to pay for these bicycle byways.
Elizabeth Preston of the League of American Bicyclists said she is very happy with the bill and sees no problem with local bike projects being funded through a federal gasoline tax. “Cycling promotes a better environment and fights gas problems,” she said. “Most cyclists have a car. They pay their taxes just like everyone else.”
Keith Ashdown, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, begs to differ. “Most of these projects are based on politics,” not on alleviating traffic congestion, he said. He rejects federal funding for “gimmicky recreational paths” and argues that projects funded by federal highway dollars should have a measurable effect on decreasing traffic congestion.
Of the 6,371 earmarks in the highway bill, 189 earmarks, accounting for $255 million in spending, include some type of project to benefit bicyclists. Many of these projects are located not along commuter corridors or major transportation routes but in recreational areas such as state and national parks.
A project called the Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Program is slated to receive $100 million, much of which will be used to convert old railways into bike and walkways in four pilot cities. Rep. Jim Oberstar (D.-Minn.), who is the ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and an avid cyclist, directed $25 million to Minneapolis through the program.
Some who follow highway spending closely believe that lawmakers these days use earmarks not only to placate local voters in general but also to target specific voting blocs in specific parts of their districts. Bike paths, for example, may appeal more to yuppie suburbanites than to inner-city dwellers or senior citizens.
Gary Hoitsma, managing associate of the Water Resources, Environment and Transportation Practice for the Carmen Group, said, “There are no barriers anymore, no scrutiny. Members simply get what they want.”
Earmarking for special projects began in 1982 to designate funds for demonstrations of innovative technologies. This bill, the largest of its kind in history, designates gas tax money for bikeways, parks, museums and even zoos.
Although this money is legally required to be distributed according to the amount raised by the gas tax in each state, many states lose money. For example, Indiana got back only 80 cents on every dollar paid to the Highway Trust Fund, while Alaska got a $5.31 return, totaling $281.8 million more than was raised in the state. Texas lost $288.5 million in redistributions to other states.
Only eight members of the House opposed the bill. Of them, Arizona Representatives Jeff Flake (R.) and John Shadegg (R.) requested that their allotted appropriations, $14 million each, be forwarded to their state transportation department. Their request was rejected, but Flake spokesman Matthew Specht said earmarks are deducted from state funds. Because Flake and Shadegg refrained from earmarking, the Arizona state transportation department will be in charge of allocating the money.
Ten Frivolous Federally Funded Bike Paths
|Sen. Joe Lieberman (D.-Conn.)||
|Extend Route 11 and construct a bike path between Salem and Waterford, Conn.|
|Rep. Howard L. Berman (D.-Calif.)||
|Road widening, construct bike path, lighting and safety improvements, Hansen Dam
Recreation Area, Los Angeles.
|Rep. William Delahunt (D.-Mass.)||
|Cape Cod bike trail, Mass.|
|Rep. William J. Jefferson (D.-La.)||
|Xavier College bicycle and pedestrian crosswalk in New Orleans, La.|
|Rep. Dave Camp (R.-Mich.)||
|Complete 13.8 miles of 30.1-mile non-motorized Fred Meijer Heartland Trail, Mich.|
|Rep. Louise McIntosh Slaughter (D.-N.Y.)||
|Scenic off-road pathway, Niagara Falls, N.Y.|
|Rep. Mike Castle (R.-Del.)||
|Improve bike access at University of Delaware|
|Rep. James L. Oberstar (D.-Minn.)||
|Bike/pedestrian bridge in Onamia, Minn., population 847|
|Rep. Zach Wamp (R.-Tenn.)||
|Cumberland Trail State Park, Tenn.|
|Rep. Sanford Bishop, Jr. (D.-Ga.)||
|For bike, pedestrian and other improvements at Georgia Veterans Memorial Park|