Four communities will soon share $100 million in federal funds to develop bicycle and pedestrian trails aimed at enticing commuters to give up their cars to get to work, thanks to lawmakers involved in the final negotiations on the recently passed highway bill.
The four pilot projects at $25 million each were the brainchild of Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, an avid cyclist and, more importantly, the senior Democrat on the House Transportation Committee.
“A lot of trails have been built for recreational purposes,” said Keith Laughlin, president of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, an advocacy for turning abandoned railroad rights of way into bike and hiking trails. “This is for transportation. There will be an emphasis on connecting destinations, getting to work, getting kids to school.”
At Oberstar’s request, Laughlin’s group proposed a dozen communities for the pilot grants. Oberstar and other key lawmakers narrowed that list to four _ the Minneapolis-St. Paul area; Sheboygan County, Wis.; Columbia, Mo.; and Marin County, Calif.
Minnesota wasn’t the only state with a well-placed lawmaker. Wisconsin got an assist from Rep. Tom Petri, a Republican who chairs the committee’s highway subcommittee; and Missouri was aided by Sen. Kit Bond, chairman of the Senate Environment Committee’s transportation and infrastructure subcommittee.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California’s Marin County, doesn’t have a leadership role on transportation, but she served on the conference committee that ironed out the six-year, $286.4 billion transportation bill. So did Oberstar, Petri and Bond.
Keith Ashdown, a vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, questioned why two of the pilot projects would be in a northern climate where year-round bicycling is difficult.
“The selection was based on who was on the conference committee and not where the money is best served,” Ashdown said. “It doesn’t seem like you’ll get the lion’s share of getting people off the roads.”
Laughlin, however, said Minnesota’s Twin Cities have among the highest use of bicycles in the country.
“A northern climate can be a positive,” he said. “If you can show these are places where you can cycle year-round, you can do it anywhere.”
Oberstar was vacationing this week and was unavailable for comment, but his spokeswoman, Mary Kerr, said the communities were chosen based on merit.
“They were selected as the most bicycle-friendly, and they had the human infrastructure in place _ people and groups that would be interested in getting it going,” Kerr said.
Shannon Haydin, Sheboygan County’s director of planning and resources, said her office got a call from Petri’s office two days before the House passed the bill, asking if the county could come up with a plan for the money.
“We said yes,” Haydin said. “There are a lot of projects that have been on hold because of lack of funding. I think we can be a role model for the country.”
Ashdown, of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said his group didn’t have a problem with the federal government funding bike trails.
“The highway bill is about more than roads, and it should be,” he said. “But when you’re suffering from record congestion in some of our biggest metropolitan areas, and alleviating that is considered the No. 1 priority, I’m not sure how effective these provisions are.”
Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who specializes in Congress, said that it was no accident that the four projects wound up in the home states of the four well-placed lawmakers.
“Very little that happens in Congress happens by coincidence,” Baker said. “Earmarking is a political payoff to constituents. This is the bread-and-butter of politics.”
On the Net: