Maybe the Local Folks Should Pay for Their Own Bike Paths

The National Journal has joined the few media outlets giving attention to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood’s recent policy pronouncement of a “sea change,” that the federal government would now treat motorized and non-motorized equally. In the online “Expert Blogs” feature, the publication today asks:

LaHood called the new policy a “sea change,” but is it a good one? Should non-motorized modes of transportation be treated as equal to other modes, particularly when modes like driving and mass transit are at least partially, if not primarily, self-funded? Or is it the essence of DOT’s evolving 21st-century mission to give people more mobility options that, according to LaHood, are relatively fast and inexpensive to build, are environmentally sustainable, reduce travel costs, improve safety and public health, and “reconnect citizens with their communities?”

We’ve already pointed out (here, here and here) that 80 percent of U.S. freight moves by truck and argued that LaHood’s pedal parity is nonsensical for a modern industrial nation.

In his expert response, Greg Cohen, President and CEO of the American Highway Users Alliance, also raises the important point that the public overwhelmingly believes funding for bike paths and the like is primarily a city and county responsibility, followed by the state. Cohen cites a 2008 survey by Fabrizio McLaughlin and Associates:

[Only] 4% of Americans felt that the federal government should take the leadership role in funding bicycle paths. 78% said that county and city governments should lead on bicycle paths and 17% said state government should do so.

These statistics point to a continuing question of the appropriate, limited role of the federal government in transportation. The survey results indicate that most Americans believe that the federal government should take a leading role in keep our major highways and bridges safe and efficient. Our founding fathers explicitly recognized an essential federal role in the regulation of interstate commerce in the Constitution, 127 years before the first federal-aid highway act of 1916. As our major highways and bridges age, meeting this primary federal responsibility becomes a serious and growing challenge. Currently, the Highway Trust Fund is insufficiently funded to even meet these basic federal responsibilities and that is why so many highway user groups are on record in support of increasing our own user fees.

Since Secretary LaHood made his enthusiastic announcement, the federal government has moved to add another huge spending obligation, $940 billion for health care, and at some point the taxpayers will be tapped out (have been tapped out). Interstate commerce and post roads are a constitutional responsibility of the federal government. Bike paths?

Cohen concludes:

The reality is that under any realistic transportation system in every community in the United States, the overwhelming amount of travel will continue to be in motorized vehicles over roads. And 88% of Americans believe it is in our national interest to combat congestion on our roads. New capacity for bicycle and walking paths should not come at the expense of highway capacity. Bicycling groups create an unnecessary dispute with motorists when they oppose new highway capacity or advocate reducing motorized travel. Bicycles may be a realistic option for some trips under the right conditions, but cars and trucks will remain absolutely essential to our economy and provide a significant net positive effect on our quality-of-life.

Awfully realistic of you, Greg. Glad someone is.

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