In a recent report on government waste called "Federal Fumbles", Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma identifies "Federal Bike Trails" on his list of programs he believes are wasting American tax dollars. Actually the report is not just "examples of wasteful spending, but also federal departments or agencies that regulate outside the scope of the federal government’s constitutional role," and it seems the bike trails - actually the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) - falls more in the latter category according to Lankford.
It's an extensive list and while there are certainly some good examples of waste and over-regulation in there, TAP isn't one of them.
Lankford starts out by describing how the gas tax is used to fund the federal Highway Trust Fund.
This system allows individuals who use the roads and bridges to pay for them to be in good condition without charging those who do not use them. Or at least that is how user fee systems work in theory.
But it doesn't because the gasoline tax hasn't kept up with the rate of inflation and now taxpayers subsidize about 50% of it. So surely that's the problem Lankford latched on to and he's going to call for an increase in the gas tax, which everyone but people who run for office seems to know we need to do, right?
Instead the federally collected dollars in the highway trust fund are used to fund bike paths, scenic viewing areas, and the conversion of abandoned railroad routes into pedestrian paths, all while roads in many states continue to deteriorate.
Money is diverted to these other non-highway uses, that's true, but even if all diverted money (and most of that is transit) were allocated to roads, it wouldn't fix the problem Lankford is trying to solve - that people who don't use roads and bridges are having to pay for them.
This is all happening because DOT requires states to spend about two percent of their highway funding on a program called Transportation Alternatives—infrastructure for non-motorized and non-gas tax contributing transportation infrastructure.
Yes. DOT requires them to do this - because Congress told them to, in bills that passed with wide majorities.
Without these federal requirements, states could be empowered to take on more multi-year, significant projects that help shorten the commutes of thousands of people and ease the movement of goods through the vast economy
TAP projects aren't "significant" perhaps but they do help to shorten the commute of thousands of people and ease the movement of goods. For example, the two projects in DC that got the most TAP funding over 2013 and 2014 were the removal of hazardous trees along roadways and enhancements to the pedestrian walkway on the Bus Deck level of the Union Station Parking Garage. TAP money also paid to widen and repave the trail from the 14th St. Bridge to E.Basin Drive. Those are things that ease people's commutes, and by reducing congestion, ease the movement of goods.
Over the past few years, the highway trust fund has needed an influx of general revenue funding to continue to pay for road projects that are authorized under the law. However, the federal government can implement small changes to make it easier for states to patch potholes and build bridges.
Again, when there is a 50% hole in the budget, the 2% that goes to TAP isn't going to fix that. And fixing potholes, while a good idea and better than building new billion-dollar elevated highway through Oklahoma City, isn't exactly a "mutli-year, significant project."
Not requiring them to use highway money meant for roads to build bike paths would be a start.
That money is meant to build bike paths (or at least something allowed by TAP), and the reason why is that Congress said so. Is there some higher power than Congress that dictated that highway trust fund money had to go to roads? Was it Moses? This is not a moral outrage or a failure to follow rules; it's a decision with which Lankford disagrees.
The next step is to stop the constant expansion of the federal highway inventory. More miles of road are added each year to the interstate system; the U.S. cannot continue to expand the federal footprint with the same amount of money.
If only there were some way to get more money for roads...some way. Though Lankford is right that highway mile expansion needs to slow down, and possibly even reverse, if the system is to be sustainable.
Perhaps there is an argument to be made that the federal government shouldn't be in the business of telling states how to spend their federal transportation dollars. I've heard them before and I think they're flawed, but Lankford doesn't make one here.
But even so, it's not clear that states would choose to do things much differently. Under current law, a state may transfer up to 50% of its TAP funds* to NHPP, STP, HSIP, CMAQ, and/or Metropolitan Planning - and most of those programs will allow the money to spent directly on roads. Despite this "just 10 percent of TAP funds have been transferred" in prior years. Clearly state DOT's see value in the projects that TAP funds are paying for.
One last point - not all TAP money (or even a majority of it) is spent on "federal bike trails." We're literally talking about a fraction of a percent of the highway trust fund. Oklahoma, for example, only puts 52% of it's TAP money towards Bike/Ped facilities and Rail Trails - and not even all of that is "trails," which are also used by pedestrians. The project that got the largest amount of funding in 201, for example, was the downtown Main Street Improvement Project.
*The amount transferred must come from the portion of TAP funds available for use anywhere in the State (no transfers of suballocated TAP funds, or funds set aside for the RTP).
WC: This article has been updated because I originally included the following in reference to Oklahoma, but it's actually Ohio. "for example, is using it's money for a wide variety of uses - one of the largest of which is to help pay to replace the three-lane Mt Vernon Avenue Bridge over the Kokosing River (which will include a bike path)."