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By Amanda Irene Rohlich
In a rare showing of cooperation on Capitol Hill, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works unanimously approved the bill named Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) this past November. This bipartisan legislation, if passed by the full Senate, will maintain funding and investment in the country’s infrastructure at current levels and will also preserve the Transportation Enhancements Program (TE), which is a major source of funding for trails, bicycle and pedestrian facilities.
What comes as somewhat of a surprise is that the TE program, which is a tiny portion of the funding, (only 1.5 percent of the entire transportation bill) was one of the most contentious issues in negotiations. It’s hard to understand why providing funds for projects that are inexpensive to build and maintain, popular with citizens, and an asset to our country’s health and well-being could cause such an uproar.
Towards Better Streets
Since the 1950s, American transportation developments have taken a decidedly automobile-centric approach, spending massive amounts of money on an impressive network of highways, roads, bridges and airports. But consider, if you will, a radical shift in America’s transportation spending. What if we could bolster neighborhoods and livability, increase access to jobs, create new jobs, and improve public health and safety? What if we could do this by strengthening local economies rather than subsidizing strip malls and big box stores that leech money out of the community rather than allowing funds to circulate through it? This reality is within reach. By simply diverting a slightly larger portion of federal funds from road-only projects toward bicycle and pedestrian projects, we have the ability to transform our faltering economy, free up congested roads, revive diminished civic engagement, and improve human and environmental health in one fell swoop.
The Road Ahead
According to Charles Marohn of Strong Towns Blog, the American Society of Civil Engineers reported that maintaining our current surface transportation system “at minimum tolerable conditions” would require investments that would far exceed any of the benefits. Let’s face it – our infrastructure is decaying at a faster rate than we can keep pace with our limited funds. This negative return on investment, lost hours of productivity spent stuck in traffic, increased congestion and pollution, and the high levels of obesity brought about by a more sedentary and less active lifestyle are not the building blocks of a strong nation.
In contrast, a study released earlier this year by the Political Economy Research Institute analyzed the estimated employment impacts of various transportation projects. The study estimates that bicycle infrastructure projects created roughly 14 jobs per $1 million in spending as compared to road-only projects that created only 7.8 jobs per the same amount of spending. In addition to a direct influx of jobs, imagine more pleasant streets and the potential boon they could be for local businesses.
Crosswalk in the Crossfire
The League of American Bicyclists reported that a 2002 National Highway Transportation Safety Administration survey found that there is a demand for better roads and paths for pedestrians and bicyclists. According to their polls, seven in ten people said they would like to bike more but felt that their communities were not designed well for bicycling.
You would think that an issue with such wide public support would not fall prey to the proclivities of our polarized politicians. However, the vote to eliminate transportation enhancements fell closely along party lines and was defeated with all Senate Democrats voting in favor of maintaining TE funding. There were, however, some rogue Republicans and an Independent who crossed these lines to vote in favor of TE preservation. In this political climate, this is notable gesture that should be commended. We need to make sure that our Representatives are responsive to their constituents and recognize that these funds help build better communities and create healthier individuals regardless of party affiliation. We need to see that our Transportation Enhancement funds are protected now and into the future.
Amanda Irene Rohlich is a Master’s candidate in Sustainable Public Administration at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. She envisions transformation in public spaces that will bring about stronger and more sustainable communities.