Safe Routes to Schools, TEA21 Re-Authorization, MO Rep. Sam Graves

I (Brent Hugh) recently wrote Sam Graves, Missouri Representative from the 6th District (which includes Liberty & St. Joseph) about supporting the inclusion of "Safe Routes to Schools" in the TEA21 re-authorization. You may know that this has been proposed recently and seems to have some substantial support.

Graves is a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and so is very involved in the TEA-21 re-authorization question.

I received a reply from Graves just yesterday (dated September 25th, 2002). It included the following interesting tidbits:

"As you may know, Congress enacted the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century Act (TEA-2 1) in 1998. A federal funding formula known as the Revenue Aligned Budget Authority (RABA) mechanism guaranteed minimum levels of funding for infrastructure projects. The RABA mechanism determines how much of the collected gas tax in the Highway Trust Fund would be returned to the states. Essentially, RABA was calculated using previously collected gas taxes and projected gas tax revenue. While the mechanism returned record amounts to the states at the height of the economic boom, an economic slowdown has returned the actual funding to lower numbers. These lower numbers limit which programs receive federal funding.

"As a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I look forward to working on the reauthorization of TEA-21 in 2003. First, I will support stable funding levels for our infrastructure and will fight to ensure that the Highway Trust Fund is used solely for transportation projects, as it was intended. I also will give attention to trail programs that will ensure the safety of pedestrians."

My comments:

1. This explains why federal funds have become harder to get recently.

2. It sounds as though Graves would oppose things like recreational bicycle trails funded by TEA21's successor. He may have other things in mind when he says "ensure that the Highway Trust Fund is used solely for transportation projects", but I'll bet (although he doesn't say so explicitly) that the multi-use trail funding is high on his list of non-transportation projects.

3. This could be an opportunity for bicyclists to push for a higher proportion of Highway Trust Funds to be used for on-road bicycle plans and on-road improvements that help bicycling. Under TEA21 the proportion has been something like 70% or 80% of the bicycling-related money towards multi-use trails (which, let's face it, mostly tend to be recreational in nature) and the rest for on-road projects. Personally, I would like to see the proportion changed and approximately reversed. I think more money put into making streets more bicycle-friendly would get more people riding, for the simple reason that streets already go close to where most people live and trails never will.

The rationales for changing the funding proportions to favor on-road projects would be:

a. On road bicycle projects serve a transportational purpose (thus diffusing the arguments of those like Graves who argue that gas tax funds should be used solely for transportation). Bicycling is already a more popular transportation choice than mass transit, so it is a real, legitimate transportation alternative and deserves funding at least on par with mass transit funding.

b. More bicycling helps reduce congestion (another transportational purpose).

c. On major roads, almost all bicycle-related improvements are also improvements from the motorist's perspective: wider, smoother, cleaner roads with good shoulders, greater separation between autos and pedestrians (because there is a bicycle lane, shoulder, or wide curb lane giving more space between sidewalk and motor vehicle travel lane), and so on.

[By the way, please don't cast me as a "trail-hater", because I'm not. We can have that discussion another day, but in short my position is: Both have their place; the proportion between them in a transportation funding package should be different than it has been.]

4. To make "Safe Routes to Schools" really helpful for bicyclists will require it to be written carefully with input from bicycle advocacy organizations--"the devil is in the details". But, in general, and hoping that the details turn out right, I think bicyclists should support the "Safe Routes to Schools" proposal in the TEA21 re-authorization, for these reasons.

a. "Safe Routes to Schools" helps cast bicycle-related improvements in terms of a clear and very popular transportation purpose: getting kids safely to and from school. This helps both in terms of helping make bicycling a viable transportation choice in the U.S. and in getting a powerful coalition of parents, teachers, and schools on "our side".

b. Routes from home to school, in every city and town throughout the entire country, encompasses a tremendous number of streets and roads. Imagine all those roads as being made bicycle-friendly! As is the case with current TEA21 projects, nothing will force communities to participate in the Safe Routes to Schools project. But this federal funding will give communities a powerful funding incentive to join the Safe Routes to Schools program and make streets and roads throughout their communities more bicycle- (and pedestrian-) friendly.

c. Bicycle advocates have long noted the decline in child and teen bicycling in the U.S. Safe Routes to Schools could be a powerful way to get more kids (and their parents) out there walking and biking. This can only be good for the future of bicycling.

--Brent Hugh