Transferring funds reserved for bikeways and walkways to highways is not an April Fools' Day leftover, but a move under consideration by the Congress of the United States of America. The 20-year-old Transportation Enhancements program currently mandates that a small fraction, about 2 percent, of federal transportation funding be reserved for building bike lanes and pedestrian walkways, but critics of the program argue that scarce resources should go toward funding highways and bridges for vehicles. They argue that fixing crumbling bridges, improving road conditions, and reducing congestion on highways should be prioritized over "frivolous" programs in which they lump beautification projects in with bike paths.
Opponents of the Transportation Enhancements program have tried to push the American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act (H.R. 7) through Congress because it would end mandated funding for bike and pedestrian paths. Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, an advocate of the bill,argues that it "ensures scarce taxpayer dollars are focused on high-priority infrastructure projects... by... [e]liminating federal mandates that force states to spend highway money on non-highway activities. In the past, scarce dollars have been diverted to non-economic beautification, bike paths, and sidewalk lighting projects that are better funded with state or local resources." Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has criticized what he calls mandated "transportation enhancement" funding as "an indefensible threat against public safety that forces states to prioritize bike paths over bridge repair."
In considering whether or not to get rid of allocating a portion of transportation funds to bike and pedestrian pathways, some assume that reduced funding for these programs would significantly affect only urban areas. As Tracy Hadden Loh, co-author of a recent report by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), has observed, "It's a widespread assumption in popular media and politics that people in small towns and rural areas do not walk or bike for transportation purposes." The RTC report, however, "demonstrates that, in fact, rates for walking and bicycling in rural areas are close to, and sometimes higher than, the national average." In small towns, moreover, the share of work trips made via bicycle is almost double that of urban centers.
The amount currently being put toward bikeways and walkways is not large. Between its inception in 1992 and 2010, the Transportation Enhancements program utilized about $8.7 billion in funds (approximately 84 percent of the money made available). $927.5 million in federal money was provided during fiscal year 2011 (approximately 2 percent of the $40.2 billion highway budget).
Given that we are facing an obesity epidemic, car-driven pollution, climate change, and a damaging dependency on foreign oil, tripling the budget for bike and walkways would make sense. Taking funds from the construction of these modes of transportation is an idea only those addicted to the revenue collected from taxes on gas (the major funding source of H.R. 7) could consider healthy.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale 2007). For more discussion, see icps.gwu.edu.