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Bikexchange.com logo, link to Home    Bike Lobby Not Satisfied With SAFETEA 2003   Bikexchange.com logo, link to Home 

By Charles Pekow

This article is the first of what will be regular, continuing coverage of national legislative news on cycling issues, brought to you by Mr. Pekow, a journalist stationed in Washington and seasoned at covering Congress.

Not much helpful – and considerable potential harm – could come to bicycling programs from the administration’s surface transportation proposal. Or so the bicycle lobby is complaining. The Bush Administration formally proposed to Congress a complicated piece of legislation to reauthorize the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century – the law that gives states money to build and maintain bike trails, finance safety programs and studies, etc. The administration named the proposal the Safe, Accountable, Flexible & Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003 (S. 1072 and H.R. 2088).

America Bikes, a coalition formed to lobby for bicycling in TEA-21 reauthorization, immediately slammed SAFETEA as “generally disappointing with only very minor improvements.” America Bikes complains of no major funding increases for programs that support bicycling. “It basically preserves the status quo, with nothing new and exciting and some steps backward for bicycling,” America Bikes complains.

Because it covers so much ground (literally and figuratively) with hundreds of billions of dollars for highways and other surface transportation projects, SAFETEA has to tread a twisted legislative path of hearings, mark-ups, debate and conference. In the House, the bill goes to the Committees on Transportation & Infrastructure (it moves people), Ways & Means (tax provisions), Budget (costs money), Science (funds experiments), Resources (affects the environment), Judiciary (legal ramifications), Energy & Commerce (deals with saving fuel), Government Reform (involves the federal infrastructure), and Rules (to determine the scope of debate and the hundreds of amendments representatives will no doubt want to introduce). So far in the Senate, only the Committee on Environment & Public Works has claimed jurisdiction.

Here’s what the bill would do for bicycling:

RECREATIONAL TRAIL PROGRAM CHANGES

The bill would make some efforts to strengthen the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) – it would enhance the role of state recreational trails committees to beef up public participation. Some “states have token committees,” the administration explains. Current law requires that states spend at least 30 percent of RTP money on both motorized and non-motorized transit. The proposal would require that the committees consist of at least 30 percent representation of groups advocating use of both options. And the proposal would also eliminate the state’s current option of waiving the 30 percent requirement for either group.

Current law allows states to fund projects to build and maintain bike trails as well as education and safety programs. SAFETEA would also allow grantees to examine the accessibility and upkeep of trails and trail sites and to hire crews or youth conservation corps to build and maintain trails. States would also be allowed to fund volunteer monitoring patrols and provide training. In fact, states would have to spend at least 10 percent of their funds on programs involving youth conservation corps or other service corps. The administration says the “provision would benefit low-income, minority, and at-risk youth by providing enhanced employment opportunities….” Current law encourages, but does not require working with youth corps.

SAFETEA would also loosen other rules. One would help large states that receive large amounts of federal highway funds. Current law allows grantees to use other federal funds when meeting the 20 percent matching requirement for RTP funding. The proposal would allow the reverse: Grantees could count RTP money as a match for other federally-funded programs, including Transportation Enhancements, the Community Development Block Grant from the Department of Housing & Urban Development, etc.

Another SAFETEA proposal would increase flexibility and also help large states. It would allow grantees to reimburse themselves for pre-approval planning and environmental compliance costs – as long as they incur the costs within 18 months of getting the grant. Current law doesn’t allow grants to pay for pre-approval costs and some grantees “have found these costs to be very high compared to the amount of funds received…sometimes more than half the total cost.” TEA-21 requires grantees to get government approval for projects before getting funds. So currently, if you want to build a trail, you must find a way to pay for environmental and other permits before you get the federal grant, and the grant won’t reimburse you for the costs of studies and permits.

RTP projects would also become exempt from several rules designed for large highway projects. State grants average about $1 million/year, usually divided into multiple projects much smaller than almost all highway projects Department of Transportation rules were designed for. RTP projects wouldn’t have to comply with federal contracting rules, since governments often use their own staff and volunteers on RTP projects. So they would be freed from competitive bidding rules required for highway projects. “This is unworkable for the RTP, which is usually administered by state resource agencies (not DoTs),” and often give grants to communities and non-profits,” notes Christopher Douwes, trails & enhancements program manager for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). “At present, we are using an administrative exemption from highway contracting requirements…but a statutory exemption would make the exemption more clear,” Douwes explains.

Also, states wouldn’t have to include RTP projects in state or metro transportation improvement programs, as history has shown that including these small projects in big plans just burdens governments by requiring them to amend their plans every time they want an RTP project -- and the process provides no benefits.

The administration also proposes to give DoT the authority to turn some of its functions over to the state – a move it says would ease the burdens on states both for RTP and Transportation Enhancements. Any powers DoT turns over to states would be covered in a memorandum of understanding, subject to renewal every three years. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) could revoke a state’s privilege any time it finds it delinquent.

SAFETEA would increase RTP funding from $50 million a year under TEA-21 to $60 million. Under the proposal, Idaho’s share would total $5,927,48 million over six years and Utah would get $5,922,446.

America Bikes opposes much of the plan. “Imagine if the government was telling the state department of transportation who would be on the transportation commission,” America Bikes Executive Director Martha Roskowski says. “States wouldn’t hear of it….It’s just a pretty detailed approach for a relatively small program….It’s basically working. There a problems in a few states but to try to rework the whole program on the federal level doesn’t make sense.”

Likewise, Roskowski fears that the youth corps mandate “is a level of detail that’s not really necessary in our view….In a number of states, there are not really functioning youth corps. Douwes responds “I think states would be able to develop corps programs quite easily. There are many excellent examples already in Vermont, Minnesota, Colorado, California and other (states).”

Highway Funding Provisions  

SAFETEA would create a new Highway Safety Improvement Program that would require states to analyze safety programs, improve their data collection and integration, and look for ways to improve safety, including hazards to bicyclists. States could use funds to fix the problems, with a 10 percent match required. State funding would be based partially on their record in reducing bicyclist fatalities.

The bill would also continue the Highway Safety Research & Development Program and Safety Research & Technology, which fund bicycle safety initiatives; as well as Transportation System Management & Operations, which funds research on bicycle travel. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics would also improve its collection of information in bicycle use in its National Household Travel Survey, which it conducts every five years.

The bill would also require state and metropolitan transportation planners to give bicyclists a chance to comment on their proposed plans.

Railbanking Indemnification  

SAFETEA includes a provision that might make states reluctant to turn abandoned railroads into bikepaths. Several courts have ruled that when governments have converted rails to trails under the federal Rails to Trails Act, the federal government ire responsible for compensating landowners who had ceded rights to railroads (unless state law makes another provision). Therefore, the federal government found itself paying twice for the same land – first through a DoT grant, then through a court decision.

So the bill includes an indemnification requirement saying that if a federal court determined that property owners are due compensation, the state would have to reimburse the federal government either the judgment (including lawyer’s fees) or the grant money, whichever is less.

This could mean a red light for rail-trail conversions. The provision “will bring railbanking to a screeching halt because no state will be willing to completely indemnify the federal government,” Roskowski warns.

Other Provisions of the Bill

America Bikes complaints that a National Blue Ribbon Commission on highway safety SAFETEA recommends would not have to study bicycle crashes, nor does the bill mandate “routine accommodation” of bicycling in highway projects, an idea FHWA issued in 2000 guidance. SAFETEA also fails to include bicycling in a proposed highway safety program on federal lands or include a tax benefit for those who bike to work.

The bill also fails to set up a new Safe Routes to Schools grant program, the one new initiative the bike lobby had hoped to create. DoT figured that other funding could pay for school safety activities.

Several congressional committees are conducting hearings on various aspects of the bill but none has yet scheduled a hearing on bicycling. But the fight may last longer than a year. Congress might just extend current law another year and continue the reauthorization attempt next year, should it get too busy or not find the funds in a tight budget year such as this one. “There are complex issues. If it takes longer, it means we have to put more resources on it…grass roots will have to work at it longer and harder. But it gives us more time to reach more people, hone our arguments, make more contact,” Roskowski says. America Bikes is funded through the end of 2003 and looking for resources to continue if need be. “I think the bike community will absolutely sustain this campaign,” Roskowski asserts. “I don’t think anybody is going to go pack up and quit because the campaign goes longer than we’d hoped.”

Though the bill doesn’t include a tax break for bicycle commuters, the idea stands before both houses of Congress anyway. Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced the Bicycle Commuter Act (S. 1093), referred to the Finance Committee, which would allow employers to reimburse employees for the costs of biking to work. Employers would be able to deduct the reimbursement as a business expense, just as they can for mass transit and carpool costs. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) earlier introduced a similar measure in the House.

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