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Danger: Squirrels Ahead!
Did you hear the one about the squirrels that brought every transit system in America to a grinding halt? Or the Tennessee squirrel sanctuary that stopped every sidewalk, crosswalk and bike lane from being built, anywhere in the country?
That's right, my fellow cyclists — we're now on the same level as squirrels in the eyes of 50 influential "think tanks" and lobbying organizations here in Washington, D.C.
You see, there's a move afoot to eliminate a whole range of activities from being eligible for funds generated by the Highway Trust Fund. Those activities: "bike paths and transit, as well as completely unrelated projects like museums and squirrel sanctuaries."
Yes, one state department of transportation (thank you, Tennessee!) many years ago protected an endangered white squirrel population using Transportation Enhancement funds (as they were then called) and that's apparently a good enough reason to eliminate federal funding to the New York City subway system. And Chicago. And Washington, D.C. And San Francisco... and every other transit system in the nation.
Rather than raise the federal gas tax by a few cents per gallon to replenish the Highway Trust Fund, and enable a modest level of investment in our nation's transportation infrastructure to be restored, these think tanks would eliminate any funding for transit, bicycling or walking. And squirrels.
Rather than raise the federal gas tax by a few cents per gallon to replenish the Highway Trust Fund... these think tanks would eliminate any funding for transit, bicycling or walking.
The idea will get a serious hearing in Congress — partly because of the influence of those think tanks, and partly because a majority of members of Congress are looking around wildly for ANY proposal they can find to avoid raising the gas tax even by a few paltry cents per gallon. A raise that has been eclipsed 10 times over by the fall in gas prices this winter alone.
Should Congress be a good steward of taxpayer money? Of course. And is the link between transportation funds and squirrel sanctuaries tenuous? Probably. But, think about that massive road project in your community — and I can pretty much guarantee there is one, wherever you may be reading this — that's going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, even billions, to add a few more lane miles of highway or briefly and temporarily reduce congestion at a busy freeway intersection. Is that a good use of taxpayer money when we know we can't afford to maintain any new lane miles and that the congestion will be back within a matter of months, with even more people stuck in traffic at the same place?
In terms of good policy, good stewardship and doing what's right for the economy and the nation, the question for me isn't whether we should raise the gas tax a little (I think we should), or be building a multi-modal transportation network for the next generation (which we should), the question is why are we still pouring billions of dollars each year into unnecessary, unwanted, unsustainable, largely counter-productive and massively expensive and disruptive highway expansion projects that were largely conceived and planned before the dawn of color television, let alone the internet.
And if it's jobs you're after, remember that a dollar spent on bike and pedestrian projects has a significantly better return on investment than that same dollar spent on highway projects. If only we'd asked about the job creation benefits of building squirrel sanctuaries; then we could stand side by side with the pro-squirrel lobby and fight off this attack together. Teeth bared.
Alternatively, you could come to the National Bike Summit in March and deliver your own message to Congress on the value of investing our transportation funds wisely, and trusting local decision-makers to address their own transportation priorities.