If a transportation bill amended Thursday passes the Senate, it will likely include dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian paths.
Bicycle and pedestrian advocates who worried that the Senate transportation bill would threaten their paths to work and school breathed a sigh of relief after money for safety enhancing projects was included in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's manager's amendment for the bill.
Critics of the original Senate bill were worried that it could bring the country back to a 1960s, highway-only mindset on bicycle and pedestrian safety. Instead they are hailing the amendment, sponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).
"Including Cardin-Cochran in (the Senate transportation legislation) makes a good bill much better. This is a win, not only for local governments, but for believers in safe and accessible transportation," said Caron Whitaker, campaign director for America Bikes.
The original version of the legislation gave states the power to decide whether to fund bicycle and pedestrian programs, which make up 2 percent of federal transportation funding. If the manager's amendment passes in the bill, states will instead be forced to let cities and towns compete for the money from a "protected pot" of dollars.
State officials have long treated people who don't get around in cars like transportation outsiders, said Andy Clarke, spokesman for the League of American Bicyclists. Transportation honchos would rather build big-ticket interstates and roadways than focus on simpler solutions that could save lives, he said.
According to the Alliance for Bicycling and Walking, 12 percent of all trips are made by bicycle or foot, but bicyclists and pedestrians make up 14 percent of traffic fatalities.
Clarke argued that the 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge in Minnesota, which killed 13 people, may have distracted Congress, causing it to focus funding on fixing bridges and ignore those who don't use cars.
The I-35 disaster was "obviously a terrible tragedy, and people lost their lives," Clarke said. "But in the five years since then, something like 20,000 cyclists and pedestrians have lost their lives, and not another bridge has collapsed."
Including bike and pedestrian paths in the Senate bill's pool of dedicated dollars, he argued, will also have benefits beyond safety. "When gas prices ratchet up, the places that are going to weather the storm the best are where people have got an opportunity to go outside," he said. The places that have only built highways have "built themselves into a really difficult future, and we can't afford to do that as a nation."