What Bike and Pedestrian Advocates Say is Missing From the Senate Roads Bill

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The $304 billion draft legislation includes policies they wanted, but a major new grant program was left out and one group sees deeper flaws. Amendments are set to be considered this week.

A major piece of road-funding legislation a Senate committee will mark up this week includes notable policy changes that cycling and pedestrian advocates have been pushing for, but also leaves out some of their key priorities—including a new $2.5 billion grant program.

The roughly $304 billion draft bill was unveiled over the weekend with bipartisan support. It outlines funding levels and policy over five fiscal years, 2022 through 2026, for programs that funnel billions of dollars down to the state and local levels for roads, bridges and highways. The current law that guides this spending is set to expire in September. 

Missing from the bill is language to launch a program that would provide $500 million dollars a year to expand and improve infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians. Two Senate Democrats, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, and one Republican, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, introduced legislation earlier this year to establish that initiative.

“This is essential in our view, kind of the centerpiece of where we need to go next for active transportation policy,” said Kevin Mills, vice president of policy for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. “We really need a concentrated source of funding.”

“It’s only when you have these safe and convenient routes to get where you need to go that you see mode-shift, more and more people switching to walking and biking,” he added.

At least one progressive group is arguing that the bill has flaws that go deeper than just funding levels for bike and pedestrian programs. 

“Overall, it’s just a bill that will put more money into roads that are wider and make cars go faster, which really isn’t great for people walking or biking,” said Jenna Fortunati, a policy and communications associate with Transportation for America.

Beth Osborne, the group’s director, criticized the measure in a statement, saying that it “creates exciting new programs with a small amount of funding in the hope that it can fix the problems that will continue to be created by the much larger status quo.”

The League of American Bicyclists was more upbeat. “While we would like to see more emphasis on equity, climate and multimodal efforts, this is a strong, solid bill for bicycling and walking and represents a chance for concrete change,” the group’s deputy executive director, Caron Whitaker, wrote in an analysis of the draft bill.

Compared to areas like road construction or transit, bike and pedestrian infrastructure is a relatively minor share of the nation’s transportation spending. But, in recent years, cyclist and pedestrian deaths have been on the rise, leading to calls for improvements to infrastructure for these road-users, along with policy changes to make streets safer for them.

Getting more people out of cars and traveling on foot or by bike, is also seen as a way to help the nation cut emissions, a priority for Democrats seeking to combat climate change.

There are equity issues in play as well. For instance, between 2008 and 2017 one study found Black pedestrians were 72% more likely to have been struck and killed by drivers while walking compared to people of other races. Advocates have also raised concerns about suburban areas with high poverty rates that have roads that aren’t safe for pedestrians and cyclists.

Transportation for America knocked the Senate measure because it would continue a policy of not penalizing states, or taking other action, if they set “negative” roadway safety targets that plan for more people to be killed on roads in upcoming years compared to earlier years.

There is a requirement in the bill that states spend 15% of what are known as Highway Safety Improvement Program dollars on “vulnerable” road user safety if 15% or more of the state’s total road deaths are pedestrians and other nonmotorists.

But, here again, Transportation for America says the bill misses the mark, noting in an analysis that in Florida, one of the most dangerous states for pedestrians in the country, it’s possible that the proposed requirement could result in just $18.7 million in safety spending.

Some Wins and Hope for Amendments

On the upside for pedestrian and bike advocates, Mills pointed out that the bill would increase the amount of funding that is going toward what’s known as the Transportation Alternatives Program, which has helped to fund projects like bike paths and walkways. 

This money is allocated based on a formula. But the bill should provide a ballpark figure of about $1.4 billion a year, versus the $850 million status quo for Transportation Alternatives. The bill also contains provisions meant to impose new limits on states from transfering money out of the program.

Mills also said that there’s an open question around how much funding may be allotted for the Recreational Trails Program, which provides funding to build and maintain trails for motorized vehicles, like ATVs and snowmobiles, as well as for pedestrians and cyclists.

That funding could ultimately depend on figures in a yet-to-be released study from the Federal Highway Administration that estimates how much fuel tax revenue should be dedicated to this account. The current amount is around $84 million a year, Mills said. But he explained that the estimates in the report could be much higher—perhaps close to $250 million.

Transportation for America applauded a provision in the bill that would require the “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices,” which guides street design across the country, to be updated every three years with an emphasis on vulnerable road users.

The group, which called this a “huge win” for those who care about a “people-first approach to street design,” argues that the current edition of the text is outdated and puts too much of an emphasis on moving cars quickly through developed areas, at the expense of safety.

Lawmakers on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee plan to mark up the bill on Wednesday and substitute legislation, with amendments, could be put forward then.

Mills said he’s hopeful that the missing grant program will be included. The League of American Bicyclists is also supporting an amendment to make that change.

Transportation for America contacted Senate staffers over the weekend with a package of amendment recommendations. Among these is a “fix-it-first” provision that would require funding recipients pursuing new projects to demonstrate that they can operate and maintain what they are planning to build, while also keeping existing assets in good repair.

Another of the group’s proposals would prohibit states from setting negative safety targets, like those that anticipate increases in traffic fatalities. It would also force states to spend more on areas where they miss safety goals. And in cases where states miss more than one target, it would trigger a process involving a federal analysis of how the problems are being addressed.

Bill Lucia is a senior editor for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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