“Adding lanes to solve traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to solve obesity.”
— Glen Hiemstra, futurist speaker and writer
Elections have consequences, the TV pundits are fond of saying.
One of the consequences of the mid-term elections last Nov. 2 was the defeat of U.S. Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, an avid cyclist who championed bicyclists’ issues in Congress as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The committee has 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.
Now, Mica is saying that millions of tax dollars set aside by law to build bike paths and sidewalks in Florida and other states could be diverted for road construction if he and state transportation officials succeed in changing the rules.
Mica told the Orlando Sentinel in a story published May 5 that he wants to streamline the way that billions of dollars from the federal gasoline tax are allocated. Among the regulations he intends to eliminate, the newspaper said, is the one that directs about 10 percent of that money to bike lanes, sidewalks and other items.
The congressman is supported in his efforts by Ananth Prasad, appointed by newly elected Florida Gov. Rick Scott as the top administrator of the Florida Department of Transportation.
During a congressional hearing run by Mica in Maitland, Fla., last month, the Sentinel reported, Prasad said: “We must give serious consideration to whether — when resources and dollars are at a premium — spending money on sidewalks, bike trails, beautification and other projects like this is the most prudent use of taxpayer money.”
Mica told the Sentinel that he wants to give flexibility to the states on how they spend their share of federal gas taxes by cutting back on mandates. He said that states still could spend on bike paths and sidewalks if they were considered a priority.
Florida’s governor apparently doesn’t think they’re a priority. With like-minded Republican governors in such states as Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan, I’d bet that a lot of federal money intended for bicycling infrastructure would be diverted to road building if Mica succeeds in changing the rules.
“Mica is writing a transportation-spending bill that could cover the next six years,” the Sentinel reported. “He held a series of hearings, including the one in Maitland, to determine how to spend the roughly $32 billion annually raised through the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon.
“Mica intends to have the committee vote on the spending bill sometime in May or June, likely setting up the summer for debate,” the Sentinel said. “The previous bill expired in 2009, and neither side could agree on a new one.” A series of short-term amendments is keeping the money flowing.”
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.
The Sentinel quoted Tim Bustos, a former transportation planner and director of the Florida Bicycle Association, as saying that the rule changes proposed by Mica would be tantamount “to taking us back in time 20 years.”