Lobbying in a time of covid-19
Whenever I’m virtually hanging out with friends and family these days, they all mention how many more people they see bicycling during this crisis. More and more people are reconnecting with their bikes for commuting, for exercise, for family time, or just for the fun of it. The comment is also followed by concern with how crowded the trails or sidewalks are with people trying to walk and bike while keeping a safe distance.
For us at the League, we are asking ourselves, what can we do to make it easier for people to walk and bike safely right now, whether to an essential job or for personal well-being, and to encourage people to continue bicycling once this crisis is over.
While the headlines focus on this week’s debates in Congress, it is important to recognize that congressional staff are looking beyond this bill in developing the next several steps in relieving the economic, emotional, and health pressures placed on millions of Americans during the covid-19 pandemic.
Infrastructure, and bicycling, will play a part in our resiliency and recovery. From a legislative perspective, there are three stages in the process: emergency relief, stimulus funding, and the reauthorization of the five-year transportation bill. Each of these stages offer an opportunity to improve bicycling options for essential workers who rely on transit, for a near-term larger investment in our transportation system, and for long-term policy change to build transportation systems that work for everyone’s health and well-being.
Emergency relief is funding to deliver essential services right now. Regarding transportation, the CARES Act included some funding to keep transit systems operating, for personal protection equipment for transit workers, and for regular cleaning of buses and trains. This transit funding was also available for bikeshare operations, and to build bikeshare stations. (Transit funds can’t pay for additional bikeshare bikes because they are single occupancy vehicles.)
We are working with transportation stakeholders in the private and public sector to continue to include funding for transit and bikeshare and the League is also asking for user relief: funding to help people who need to use transit, bikeshare or other public options for essential transportation.
The League is also supporting local governments as they seek relief from state and federal design and environmental permitting processes (only for projects on paved surfaces) to do quick-build pop-up infrastructure that would accomodate increased biking and walking at a safe distance.
Stimulus funding will be additional investments across a diverse portfolio of federal works to kick start the economy once the worst of the crisis is through. This will be similar to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), where Congress invested $27 Billion into transportation funding, and three percent was set aside for the Transportation Enhancements program (the predecessor of Transportation Alternatives).
To ensure any stimulus funding is similarly directed to biking and walking, the League is working with partners to create a list of priority biking and walking projects that show the widespread need around the country. While this list will acknowledge what is “shovel-ready”, it needs to also address the primary benefits of the projects (safety, connectivity, equitable access, etc.) and where the project has been documented (state or local plan).
The League also supports flexible funding to local governments to fund innovative solutions to current transportation needs.
The League is still very much focused on getting the best transportation reauthorization bill possible, and we believe a larger five to six-year bill can be funded as part of the long-term response to covid-19. The Senate has already passed the roads section of the bill which includes significant new funding for bicycling and walking, a focus on safety, and the first climate title in a transportation bill. We believe the House bill will include even stronger policy changes, and a strategy to take steps towards a more sustainable transportation system.
Passing this transportation reauthorization will require increased investment, and the main struggle has been finding the funding. If Congress funds the bill as part of a long-term recovery effort, we may see some significant and positive policy change. If the bill does not pass during this time, it will become even harder to do the bill later, when Congress must focus to reducing deficits and debt.