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By Kirk Landers
In May, as part of National Bike Month, an organization called the Adventure Cycling Association launched the second year of a fund raising campaign in support of its efforts to coordinate a U.S. Bicycle Route System.
At first blush, the association and its goal have little significance to the construction industry.
The Adventure Cycling Association is a not-for-profit endeavor whose monetary goal is to raise $30,000, and whose activities involve assisting state transportation departments with route selection, mapping and technical aspects associated with the development of the system. In other words, ACA isn’t out to build bike trails and bike lanes or spend public money, they just want to help state DOTs designate bicycle routes that create a national system.
What makes this project important to the construction industry is that it’s the brainchild of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and the announcement comes at a time when some pundits in the road and bridge industry are arguing that federal fuel tax funds should no longer support non-highway projects such as bike paths and mass transit.
Their logic is unassailable as long as you don’t take into account the dynamics of democracy – or, more bluntly, pragmatic politics.
This is a modern day lesson in the realities of transportation politics: to win public support, transportation programs have to serve many constituencies.
Which is where AASHTO comes in. This quiet, low-profile assembly of state DOT officials is one of America’s most powerful forces in both the politics and the science of roads. Politically, the group does what the federal government seldom can – it finds ways for people representing a full spectrum of political interests in America to agree on central points about the country’s roads.
Thus, when AASHTO supports an expanded federal highway program – which it does – it is significant. If AASHTO didn’t support such a program, there would be no debate about it in Congress.
The state transportation executives’ support of a national bike trail system shouldn’t be overstated – this is, after all, a very modest endeavor – but it is significant. It’s significant because transportation executives representing the most penny-pinching conservative states and the most profligate spending states (and everything in between) saw fit to support a bike trail initiative. This is a modern day lesson in the realities of transportation politics: to win public support, transportation programs have to serve many constituencies, not just those who are the most financially deserving – in this case, the motorists and truckers who pay the fuel tax.
Keep this in mind as you express your position on the next federal transportation bill to your senators and congressman. Focusing all of the federal fuel tax revenues on roads and bridges and freezing out mass transit, bike paths and other small constituencies may seem logical to some, but it will only succeed in fragmenting the alliances that have produced bipartisan support for the federal highway program for the past several decades.
And when that alliance is fractured, the final casualty may very well be the federal highway program itself – a terrifying proposition for those familiar with roads in the pre-Eisenhower/Interstate era.