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A tug of war over livability

Washington really is an odd place to do business. Even as the City prepares for the Summer exodus to the beach or home districts (or really anywhere away from the heat and humidity), the last few days of any Congressional session are alive with possibilities and danger, and interest groups such as ours have to be prepared for almost anything, flexible, and on 24 hour alert!

As I write, the House is debating the Transportation Appropriations bill – the annual approval of the funds and programs that the Department of Transportation spends and passes on to the States for various programs. Normally, there’s not much to get worked up about in this particular bill. The major programs and funding levels are set (or “authorized”) every five or six years by the transportation bill – and the appropriators really only get to play with the discretionary parts of the USDOT’s budget, which are relatively small.

This year, things are a little different. There are a handful of Members of Congress who still want to strip every funding program for bikes out of the budget – this time Congressman Broun of Georgia tried to introduce an amendment to prevent ANY funds in the bill going to bike paths; that proposal wasn’t even considered in bounds, so we didn’t have to go through the fire drill of getting folks wound up to defend bike funding. (Don’t worry, though, it seems inevitable it will come up again…!)

There’s also a major impasse over the next transportation bill, which means there are no new programs to be funded…but there’s a new administration and a new interest in programs like livability that some legislators really want to get moving. Of course, we want those programs funded as well, because they are likely to result in additional investment in bicycling. Two of our most favorite people in Washington are supporting a $200 million livability program in the bill – Secretary LaHood and Congressman Blumenauer – and ordinarily we would be right behind it.

Unfortunately, they find themselves ranged against two more of our most favorite people in Washington – Representatives Oberstar and DeFazio. They are both supporters of livability, of course – they wrote livability into the draft transportation bill after all. They are fiercely protective of their role as leaders of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and authorizers of the programs that USDOT and the state DOTs implement. We are grateful for this authority, as it  protects programs like the transportation enhancement and Safe Routes to School from potential annual attack by appropriators. The struggle in Congress between authorizers and appropriators is age-old, deep-seated, and transcends bicycle issues: authorizers never want to cede power to appropriators. In this case they don’t want a livability program created without their say because of the precedent it might set next year and the year after; they’d much rather have a new transportation bill written!

So, we find ourselves, along with other advocates, in a challenging position! We are standing on the sidelines watching and waiting. All four of our champions want strong livability initiatives in the USDOT and Federal Highway Administration…that isn’t the issue. The issue is how it gets done, and that’s something only Congress can work out. And with these four players involved…how can we possibly take sides.

UPDATE: The DeFazio Amendment just passed.

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