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A Fight for the Future

Where did your city get the money for the bike lane on Main Street or the PSA campaign to educate motorists about the rights of bicyclists? It very well could have come from the federal transportation bill. And that funding is running out. 

The federal transportation bill is the source of a hundreds of millions of dollars that municipal, county and state governments use for biking and walking projects in their communities. Where do those federal dollars come from? The Highway Trust Fund, which relies predominantly on the federal gas tax. But the Trust Fund is in trouble. We’ve been spending more than we’ve been bringing in. 

Last Summer, Congress extended MAP-21, the transportation policy bill until May 31, and with that extension included funding to get us through May 31.  That funding now looks like it will last through July or into August. States did not spend down the money as fast as expected due to a mix of concerns over there being enough funding to finish projects they would start.

The future of that funding and the next transportation bill is now in the hands of Congress for reauthorization. History has shown such uncertainty is bad for bicycling.

This week, Congress is primed to extend MAP-21 another 2 months, until the end of July.  Most Congressional leaders wanted to extend the bill until January 1, 2016 but the truth is, despite having the political will to do so, they couldn’t agree on where to find the $11 billion needed to fund transportation for the end of the year.

If they can’t find $11 billion for one year,  how will they find the $80-100 billion needed to pass a 5-6 year bill at current spending levels? Or, as U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx suggests, find the $200-300 billion needed to bring our transportation system into the 22nd Century and be competitive with China and Europe?

The future of that funding and the next transportation bill is now in the hands of Congress for reauthorization. History has shown such uncertainty is bad for bicycling: Biking and walking projects are disproportionately delayed compared to other types of road projects.  That means the improvements to bicycling and walking in your community will likely stall to an abrupt halt if Congress doesn’t find a way to fix the gap in funding. 

And it’s doesn’t stop there. The fight over the best solution for a bankrupt Trust Fund has fueled an intense debate about whether biking and walking projects ought to be eligible for federal funding at all. 

Here in Washington, D.C. we’re watching developments closely. Many believe that in July policy and the funding mechanism for the Trust Fund will be extended for another six months — but it’s unclear where Congress will find the funding.We believe that that debate will bring  an attempt to repeal the Transportation Alternatives program, which provides 40% of all federal funding for biking and walking — or strip biking and walking eligibility completely.

From our perspective, Congress has three real options in front of it. 

Photo by Brian Palmer

#1 Raise the gas tax.

There’s a bill to increase the gas tax by 15 cents over a year and a half — a less than 1 cent increase a month. There’s also a second bill that would index the gas tax for inflation. That inflation index over 10 years, added to Trust Fund revenues, will pay for transportation for two years. Essentially, Congress would be in the same place it is now in just two years. 

The League supports an increase in the gas tax, recognizing this as a short-term solution. Given the increase in electric vehicles and the decrease in vehicle miles traveled per person, increasing the gas tax is a moderate solution at best. There are discussions about a potential “Vehicle Miles Traveled” fee as a longer term option, but even if Congress decided to do that this year we are still 10 years away from implementation.

What’s the downside of raising the gas tax? Increased funding for the system will boost funding for all projects, the good and the bad. That’s why we’re also working on improving policies, like Complete Streets and stronger safety goals, to ensure we’re building an efficient system that works for all users.

Photo by Brian Palmer

#2 Find the funding somewhere else without raising taxes

This is what Congress did in 2012 with MAP-21, and again in 2014, to get us to this point. Finding this funding becomes increasingly more difficult as Congress tries to cut funding overall. Some in Congress believe tax reform is the golden ticket but a number of committees and issues outside of transportation are also looking at this as a solution. 

The League doesn’t have a position on tax reform or any other specific funding source, but the devil is in the details. It’s unlikely meaningful tax reform and funding for transportation will result through that process. But if the funding comes from something other than a user fee, then the question of whether or not bikes “pay in” should go away.

Taxing bikes or bike tires is also in play in this discussion. Recent estimates by the Senate Finance Committee show that a bike tire tax raises trivial amounts of money, and other estimates of a registration fee show the same. Still, it’s part of the discussion in Congress. 

Photo by Brian Palmer

#3 Cut transportation spending

If Congress were to say we can only spend what is in the Trust Fund, roughly 95% would go to reimbursing projects already planned or in progress. Only about 5% could go to projects not already on the books.

With this, there is also talk of removing transit, bicycling and walking altogether — and a bill has already been introduced to do just that.

There’s also discussion of devolving    transportation to the states. This would reduce the federal system’s oversight to just Interstate highways and would leave states to increase their gas tax to cover transportation. 

Devolution, as envisioned by Congressional conservatives, puts decision making and revenue raising to the state level.  This is problematic for our interests because state departments of transportation are primarily focused on state systems and have traditionally been slow to invest in bicycling and walking infrastructure. It also doesn’t include any safeguards for local control — so there’s no requirement that any of the funding get down to the local level, where biking and walking projects fare best. 

If such a devolution bill as last year’s Transportation Empowerment Act passed and states had to replace the lost federal revenue by increasing their own fuel taxes, on average, their gas taxes would have to increase by roughly 23 cents by 2020, and some states would have to raise their taxes by more than 30 cents, according to the American Trucking Association. What’s more, many states, even Oregon, have state constitutional amendments that bar state gas tax revenue from going to anything but roads and bridges — and would significantly reduce any funding going to bicycling and walking.

Another potential curveball is a reduction in the federal “match” for non-Interstate projects. Currently the federal government requires a 20% match in funding from states for most transportation projects. One current theory is that the federal government could require a 50% match for anything not on an Interstate. This would make it harder for local communities to use federal funds not only for biking, walking and transit, but also for state, local and county roads.

Changing the match on non-Interstate projects creates problems for state, county and local governments beyond just biking and walking, increasing the funding necessary to build local priority projects including some bridges, roads, and transit, too. Rest assured, we’re pushing for, at least, an exemption so that biking and walking projects that improve safety are eligible for a higher match.

What’s next? We need you!

Funding transportation is a major question facing Congress and transportation experts. The problem is much bigger that bicycling, but the solution will affect bicycling well into the future. 

Understanding the debate and weighing in is critical to our ability to successfully advocate for transportation policy and funding that increases bicycling and walking as a cost effective way to enhance access and mobility, and to support a role for mayors and local decision makers in transportation policy.

Make your voice heard on this critical topic. Watch for action alerts in the coming month — and urge family, friends and fellow advocates to join our action list at

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