Showing cyclists the money

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Today, Cato Institute senior fellow Randal O'Toole and local blogger Will Campbell discuss public funding for bicycle infrastructure. Yesterday, they determined who bears more responsibility for the frequent road rage between cyclists and motorists. Later in the week, they'll debate bike activism, encouraging cycling as an alternative to car commuting and more.

If cyclists want more, they should payBy Randal O'Toole
The federal government collects about $40 billion a year in gasoline taxes and other highway user fees. When bridges are falling down and commuters are wasting 3 billion gallons of fuel each year just sitting in traffic, it is important to target this money on the most cost-effective projects.

Yet, as U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters has noted, Congress diverts 40% of federal highway fees to non-highway programs. It has also dictated that billions of dollars of fees be earmarked for bridges to nowhere and other useless projects.

American motorists deserve to know that the taxes and fees they pay to drive on our great highway system are being spent effectively. Unfortunately, too many urban planners have joined the anti-automobile movement, and the name of the game for them is to divert as many highway dollars to non-highway projects as possible.

So many cities are spending highway funds on multimillion-dollar bicycle overpasses, exclusive bike paths and other expensive facilities. When we compare the number of people using these paths and bridges with the cost, they are often not a cost-effective way of moving people.

At the same time, cyclists deserve to know that they can ride on our street networks without taking their lives in their hands. Motorists do not mind if an appropriate share of highway fees are spent on bike facilities as long as they are spent cost effectively. For example, motorists in my home state of Oregon support the dedication of 1% of state gas taxes to bike routes.

One cost-effective alternative to expensive bike paths is bicycle boulevards. This is where streets paralleling busy arterials are dedicated to bicycle use while still open for local auto traffic. For little more than the cost of signage, and some careful planning at busy intersections, cyclists can have a safe alternative to the busier roads.

In the end, it is all about money. A century ago, the League of American Wheelman joined auto owners in the Good Roads Movement. But no one knew how to pay for those roads until, in 1919, Oregon became the first state to dedicate a gasoline tax to highways and streets. Since then, motorists have paid at least 90% of the costs of the roads and streets cyclists ride on.

Today, California motorists pay an average of 2.5 cents in gas taxes for every mile they drive. That's about 1.5 cents per passenger mile.

Will, are you willing to pay a fee of 1.5 cents for every mile you ride? I certainly am. For me, that would be about $75 a year. For most bicycle owners, it would be a lot less.

Paying this fee would give cyclists a legitimate seat at the table when streets are built and rebuilt. It would also give transportation planners an incentive to take cyclists' needs into account. Isn't that a fair response to Peters' complaint?

Randal O'Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of "The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths: How Smart Growth Harms American Cities." An active cyclist who has never commuted to work by car, O'Toole is a resident of Bandon, Ore.


If you build it, cyclists will comeBy Will Campbell
Randal, I find it a bit contradictory that in yesterday's post you wax about how we all share the burden in the ongoing battle between bikes and cars to share the road, and that part of the solution should be better street and road designs, yet today you dismiss some examples of those designs as being ultimately inefficient and therefore not cost effective because of the limited number of people they would serve. This, after you toss off the "billion" word in relation to annual gas tax dollars collected, gallons of gridlock-spent fuel wasted and fees diverted.

Speaking of serving a limited number of people, let's go back to 1912 for a few moments. Combined automobile production for that year topped 187,000 vehicles in a nation with a population of 95 million. For the lack of a good network of roads, getting across town was a task, across a county a challenge, across a state an ordeal. How about across a country? Practically impossible. But that didn't dampen the enthusiasm of one Carl Fisher, who hatched his dream of building the first transcontinental highway at an estimated cost of $10 million — even though only 2% of the citizenry drove and many states sported constitutional prohibitions against funding road projects.

A year later the first section of Lincoln Highway — America's "father road" — was dedicated, and ultimately it traversed 3,400 miles from Times Square in New York to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. As successful as it became, it isn't hard to imagine there were plenty of people who thought such a plan inefficient and wasteful. The biggest automaker of the day, Henry Ford, refused to support the project. He had the crazy notion that building roads was the government's job.

On that note, it would be pretty easy for me to view Peters' remarks as narrow-minded, but I really want to give her the benefit of the doubt and suppose what she meant was that at the current time there are other more pressing highway, byway and mass-transit projects in greater need of fewer federal funds. Maybe part of her point was that integrating a network of bicycle lanes and paths into the grid is a job better left to city, county and state agencies. Or maybe she just expects a modern-day Carl Fisher to step up, and if one doesn't, well, then tough tarmac. Regardless of the context within which she may or may not have been speaking, such a statement doesn't surprise me coming from a Cabinet member in the current administration.

And to answer your question, Randal, I'm all for footing my fair share of the bill if it will help me sit down at that legitimate seat at the table. And I'm totally with you in terms of exploring lower-cost, easily implemented options (you say "bike boulevards," and I start salivating). But like Fisher and his Lincoln Highway, I firmly believe that if you build a dedicated, cohesive bicycling network, the riders will come. Maybe not right away in staggering, cost-effective numbers, but give it time — something of which we cyclists have plenty. One of my morning bike commute routes brings me past a Jeep dealership on La Brea Avenue that, until recently, had a banner that read, "Get ready for the next 100 years!" Each time I'd see it, I'd pedal by saying to myself, "I am."

Silver Lake resident Will Campbell beat his 2007 goal to bike 2,007 miles across L.A. by nearly 1,100 miles. He blogs at Wildbell.com and Blogging.la and is an editor with Ascend Media.

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