House Dems seek to protect bike funding in highway bill

Democratic lawmakers in the House are seeking to prevent federal funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects from being cut as House leaders work on a long-term highway bill this fall.

Lawmakers in the House are expected to try to craft a multiyear transportation funding measure to counter a six-year highway bill that was approved by the Senate in July. 

Funding for bike and pedestrian projects, which is known as the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), has been a frequent target for Republicans looking to cut back on spending as federal highway funding has dried up in recent years. 

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Democratic members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led by Rep. Rick LarsenRick LarsenBusiness groups, lawmakers back trade case against China Dems urge treaty ratification after South China Sea ruling House panel kills LGBT effort on defense bill MORE (D-Wash.), said Thursday that the bike and pedestrian funding is essential to winning Democratic support for a potential long-term highway bill.  

"For the House transportation bill to be bipartisan, it must not cut funding for TAP or make policy changes that undermine the local availability of these dollars," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who are the top ranking Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the panel's Highways and Transit Subcommittee respectively. 

"As you well know, TAP provides much-needed funds for local transportation priorities, including bicycling, walking and Safe Routes to School projects," Larsen continued. "Communities of all shapes and sizes—rural, urban and suburban—are clamoring for TAP dollars to give their residents lower-cost transportation options that reduce road congestion, improve safety for children and families, and boost quality of life. These types of projects are also essential to helping cities and counties increase property values, grow retail sales and attract tourism." 

Lawmakers are facing an Oct. 29 deadline for the expiration of the federal government's ability to spend money on transportation projects, although the Department of Transportation has said recently that there is now enough money in its covers to cover infrastructure projects until next June. 

House leaders have pledged to work on a long-term transportation bill after passing a temporary extension in July because they refused to accept an infrastructure plan that was approved by the Senate. 

For years Republicans have targeted bike and pedestrian spending as wasteful at a time when the federal government is struggling to keep pace with rising infrastructure expenses. 

The typical source of transportation funding is revenue that is collected by the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax. The tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and cars are a lot more fuel-efficient now than they were 20 years ago. 

The federal government usually spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings in approximately $34 billion annually at its current rate.

Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget to close the gap in recent years, but bike and pedestrian critics have said Congress should focus gas tax money on roads as resources dwindle. 

Federal law requires 20 percent of gas tax revenue to be set aside for transit, but Larsen said Thursday that bike and pedestrian programs account for a much smaller portion of the highway pot. 

“Less than two percent of federal transportation funding goes to the Transportation Alternatives Program, which funds bike and pedestrian projects. But communities leverage these small funds to get big results," he said in a statement. 

"To make sure safety comes first for everyone who uses our roads, whether they bike, bus, drive or walk, local communities need these resources to invest in bike lanes, sidewalks and trails," Larsen continued. "Better bike and pedestrian infrastructure not only improves safety, it benefits people’s quality of life by cutting down on traffic congestion and pollution."