Hard on the heels of a failed move in the US Senate to strip transportation enhancement funding out of the transportation bill, opponents of the program are now trying a new tack: claiming that bridges are falling down because of the funds diverted to “bike paths” and other beautification projects. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has suggested that enhancement funds – the primary source of Federal funding for bicycling and walking infrastructure – be siphoned off to bridge repair, in part because one key Ohio River bridge in Kentucky is in need of repair and the state transportation agency “doesn’t have the money” to do the repairs.
If this sounds familiar, it is. You may remember some of the same rhetoric surfaced around the time of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, including a statement from then-Transportation Secretary Mary Peters that she later retracted. The arguments being used by Senator Paul don’t improve with age or re-telling and still make no sense. Here are a few of the reasons why:
- Safety: Thirteen people died when the Minneapolis bridge collapsed in 2007: since then, close to 20,000 pedestrians and 2,800 cyclists have died on our nation’s highways, largely as a result of poor highway design and an historic lack of safe non-motorized infrastructure – exactly what the enhancement program was created to fix. No bridges have collapsed since 2007.
- Fix it First: Between six and ten percent of Kentucky bridges are classified as “structurally deficient” – yet for every dollar Kentucky has spent in recent years on bridge repair, they have spent $6.50 building new roadway capacity; they spent 77% of their stimulus funds on new capacity rather than fixing existing bridges and roadways – the fourth worst record in the nation.
- Use it or Lose It: Kentucky isn’t even spending all the Federal transportation money they have already been given for bridges on bridges: in fact, earlier this year they sent $6.9 million of unspent bridge funds BACK TO WASHINGTON DC. They are not alone: nationwide, more than $534 million of unused bridge funds were sent back to Washington DC by state Departments of Transportation.
- A Question of Scale: Kentucky has four massive bridge & highway projects in its “transportation improvement program” each one costing between $1.5bn and $4.1bn. The transportation enhancement program for all 50 states is around $900m annually of which bike/ped projects are typically half. This means the entire nation’s primary source of bike and pedestrian program funding for the next 20 years would have to be diverted to rebuild four bridges in Kentucky…bridges that aren’t actually structurally deficient, they are “functionally obsolete”, which means they aren’t as big and wide as the highway lobby wants them to be.
Senator Paul should be a little more skeptical of the rhetoric of many of our state’s highway agencies when they plead poverty, warn of imminent bridge collapse, and complain about “their” funds being taken from them. In far too many cases, state departments of transportation are spending vast sums of public money on the wrong projects in the wrong places for all the wrong reasons. That’s one reason why they often struggle to get approval for projects that take so long to implement – they are still trying to build a 1950s-style highway system long after the sell-by date.
As his Senate colleagues were reminded just a couple of weeks ago, the enhancements program is popular, successful, heavily over-subscribed, and is creating the kind of infrastructure improvements and choices in communities that people want more of, not less.
Andy Clarke was appointed to the position of Executive Director in April of 2004 after successfully leading efforts to create, interpret and implement the various transportation programs that are available to improve conditions for bicycling and walking as the League’s State and Local Advocacy Director. Before joining the League in February 2003, Clarke was on contract to provide technical assistance to the highly regarded Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center on site at the Federal Highway Administration. He is on the Board of Directors for America Bikes, and a member of the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycling Professionals.