Investing in the transportation system America needs

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The House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee just released its bill defining the future of America’s transportation system—amid a complicated moment that is rife with opportunity.

With its “INVEST in America” bill, the committee sets forth a bold plan. The bill delivers substantial opportunities to fuel the future of walking and biking across the country by investing in a more balanced, multimodal transportation system that values safety and reduces carbon emissions. I applaud Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) for his strong vision and commitment to active transportation, although I see opportunity to take his vision further and respond to fundamental shifts in our society that have seemingly taken hold overnight.

Since March, American lives have been altered in ways we still can’t fully comprehend. As we’ve worked together to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, every aspect of our day-to-day lives has changed: how we work, how we teach, how we eat, how we live and how we get around. During this time, people have turned to the outdoors. Walking and biking has surged as we seek places where we can find respite and joy, as well as affordable and safe transportation. In the past few months, the numbers of people using trails have spiked to rates 200 percent higher than this time last year. Bike shops are busier than ever.

While this moment is unprecedented, it is drawing into sharp focus the incredible, long-standing demand for safe, connected places to walk and bike in this country. Like so many other sectors, the pandemic has accelerated the change that was already rumbling. The challenge in front of the committee now is how to meet this moment as they negotiate and finalize the bill in the weeks ahead.

For too long, federal transportation policy has minimized biking and walking as nice-to-have options—a choice to make if you are fearless enough to brave the traffic or if you have no other choice at all.

A culture shift is playing out before our eyes as walking and biking are shown to be essential. Affordable, safe transportation. Affordable, safe recreation. Affordable, safe health and wellness. With this bill, the House has the opportunity to push further, maximizing the active transportation infrastructure on the ground by prioritizing investments in projects that build connected networks—trail and active transportation systems that make it safer, more equitable and more convenient for people to get around on foot and by bike.

DeFazio and the House T&I Committee’s INVEST in America Act goes far in providing for safer walking and bicycling facilities. The bill grows longstanding programs that support this infrastructure, improves safety policies to address rising fatalities of pedestrians and bicyclists, and creates incentives to cut carbon emissions. There is much included in the bill to be celebrated.

One of the biggest game-changers is a new program designed to fund critical links between existing active transportation facilities to create safe walking and biking networks, inspired by the Connecting America’s Active Transportation System Act (H.R. 5696). These Active Transportation Connectivity Grants provide millions of dollars for projects that will accelerate the completion of trail and active transportation networks—meeting surging demand for infrastructure that makes it easier to walk and bike to essential destinations, like grocery stores, schools and jobs.

This new program reinforces the importance of investing in walking and bicycling routes that leverage existing infrastructure by creating functional networks, linking communities and connecting people on foot or on bike to everyday destinations within cities and towns. This is exactly what our country needs to maximize the mobility and economic benefits derived from decades of building active transportation projects.

Unfortunately, the bill only funds this key innovation for FY24 and at $250 million, half the annual level in H.R. 5696. Committing to this approach for all five years of the reauthorization would complete DeFazio’s admirable vision.

Without question, this needed investment would also help our nation’s economic recovery. Active transportation generates $34.1 billion in annual economic benefits, with the potential to deliver $138.5 billion each year as the connectivity of trails and active transportation routes improves. Building active transportation facilities generates 17 jobs per million dollars spent, a ratio higher than for roads and other transportation projects because the work is more labor intensive. This investment also creates opportunities for mobility for the 20 percent to 40 percent of Americans who do not drive due to age, disability, income or choice.

The key to sustaining the changes in transportation behaviors accelerated by the pandemic and unlocking additional health and economic benefits of walking and biking is to connect everyday and essential destinations with facilities that make it safe and practical to choose walking or biking for more short trips—in every neighborhood in America.

The INVEST in America Act reinforces current federal active-transportation funding programs that provide necessary breadth of investment, supporting walking and bicycling facilities in every jurisdiction. But these programs were not designed to build active transportation networks at the pace they are needed. It will require the House to take a step further, increasing and making yearly the bill’s investment in Active Transportation Connectivity Grants.

Once before in America’s history, we experienced a bicycling boom like we are today. In the 1970s, more bicycles were sold in America than automobiles. Despite loud calls to move aggressively toward safer and more connected bicycle infrastructure, our policies aligned with more traditional transportation programs, and those who had turned to bikes as new, low-cost transportation solutions were largely ignored. The opportunity was lost because we lacked safe, connected routes to ride.

I am hopeful that our country does not make the same mistake again—and that the forthcoming federal transportation bill will reach as far as it needs to meet a new societal context that begs for rapid change.

Ryan Chao is the president of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the nation’s largest trails and active transportation advocacy organization.  

Tags Cycling Peter DeFazio transportation bill

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