The newly elected 112th Congress convened Wednesday with a new Republican chairman in charge of a panel closely watched by bicyclists: The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
The previous chairman, Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Democrat who had represented the 8th Congressional District in Minnesota’s Iron Range for 36 years, was ousted from Congress in the Republican tsunami last November. He lost his seat by 4,532 votes to a political newcomer, Chip Cravaack.
Oberstar, an avid cyclist, was a champion of cyclists’ issues in Congress.
Jim Sayer, executive director of Adventure Cycling Association, said in a statement the morning after the Nov. 2 elections: “In general, it’s a tremendous loss for America to not have Jim Oberstar working on transportation. He was a champion not just for us but for a truly integrated transportation system.”
Mica’s committee will have oversight of the Obama administration’s Transportation Enhancements program, under which federal funds are provided to enhance surface transportation projects, including pedestrian and bicycle paths, safety programs and highway beautification.
The Transportation Enhancements program is part of funding for transportation in general, and it has received a hostile reception from Republicans in previous debates.
On March 17, for example, during a hearing by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Republicans heaped ridicule on Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood after LaHood suggested that bicycling and walking are just as good ways to get around as cars.
“To laughter, Republican House members suggested LaHood was taking drugs, dismissed the very idea of bike lanes and derided any change to a car-dependent society,” wrote Nick Wilson on courthousenews.com, a news service for lawyers.
Wilson quoted Ohio Republican Steven LaTourette as asking: “What job is going to be created by having a bike lane?” LaTourette, who was elected to a ninth term in November, suggested at the hearing that environmental sustainability projects have “stolen” $300 million from other programs and attacked LaHood’s encouragement of bicycling, on a personal level. “Is there still mandatory drug-testing at the department?” asked LaTourette, to chuckles from the back of the room, Wilson wrote.
On July 30, 2009, Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona, both re-elected in November, released a report called “Out of Gas,” which criticized all non-highway transportation spending.
The report singled out bicycle and pedestrian projects as an unnecessary luxury and called on lawmakers to use the report along with their red pens.
“Crossing out extraneous transportation spending should be our first priority,” the report said.
Perhaps these Republican critics should be made aware of another study, this one done in 2010 by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
That study concluded that bicycling contributes $1.5 billion to Wisconsin’s economy every year. The highlights of the study were that cycling has created 13,200 bike-related jobs, brings in $535 million annually in tourism dollars from out-of-state visitors, has reduced healthcare costs because healthier people need less healthcare, and created a better quality of life.
Wisconsin, of course, benefits from the fact that it is home to such well-known bicycle companies as Trek Bicycle Corp., Saris Cycling Group, Planet Bike and Waterford Precision Cycles. Also, hundreds of locally owned bike shops and bicycle-friendly businesses support the vitality of local economies, the study said.
The study, summarized on the website of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, cited Sparta, in the rolling hills of western Wisconsin, as one of many places in the state where bicycle recreation generates millions of dollars in economic activity.
Sparta, which calls itself the “bicycling capital of America,” welcomes 15,500 visiting bicyclists each year thanks to the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources reports that 100,000 people use the trail every year.
The Sparta Chamber of Commerce reported: “As residents drive by our full parking lots, see vehicles from almost every state in the Union, or see bicyclists downtown eating and shopping, they realize the trail’s importance.”
So bicycling, it seems, can bring in big bucks and create jobs for communities around the nation, despite critics in Washington who consider enhancements to cycling infrastructure, such as trails and urban bike lanes, frivolous luxuries that “steal” money from highway construction.
John Mica, as chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, will be no Jim Oberstar in championing cycling causes in Congress. But, at least, he may not be a disaster.
Jonathan Maus, publisher and editor of the website BikePortland.org, wrote on the site Nov. 4 that he met Mica at a fundraiser during the 2009 National Bike Summit. Here’s what he reported after that event:
“The last member of Congress to make it to the party last night was Rep. John Mica from Florida… He shared candidly that, while he and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (an Oregon Democrat who represents Portland) ‘have our disagreements from time to time,’ he is supportive of biking.
“Mica boasted that Florida leads the nation in rail-trails and then said in a self-deprecating tone, ‘That’s pretty good for a right-wing, knuckle-dragging conservative.’ On that note, Mica said that as a Republican he has to support biking ‘quietly.’ ‘I did a path over an interstate years ago,’ he said, and then began to smile, ‘but we didn’t send out a press release on it.'”
So I guess we’ll have to wait and see how Mica will perform in a House under Republican control and hope that his support of cycling doesn’t become even quieter.