Highways to Hell: Bikes and Buses Battle the Road, Tire and Asphalt Lobby

By Baker, Linda | E Magazine, November-December 1997 | Go to article overview

Highways to Hell: Bikes and Buses Battle the Road, Tire and Asphalt Lobby


Baker, Linda, E Magazine


You're riding your bike to work on the Willamette River Pathway in Portland, Oregon. Before you get to your office, you stop for a shower at Bike Central, a commuting facility downtown. That evening, you put your bicycle on a bus rack and head for a friend's house at the Belmont Dairy, a transit-oriented housing and retail complex. What a wonderful car-free lifestyle, you think, but how did it happen?

The answer is a bureaucratic mouthful: the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA, pronounced "ice tea"). Passed by Congress in 1991, this landmark legislation allows the use of highway funds for transit, bike and pedestrian projects and encourages community involvement in transportation and urban planning. ISTEA has now run out of money, and there's an ugly political battle taking place over reauthorization.

Bus, bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups have joined national environmental organizations to campaign furiously for the preservation of ISTEA. But major oil and road coalitions are pumping millions of dollars into Washington to cut off provisions for transportation alternatives. In the last six months, for example, Ford, Arco and Amoco have spent $10 million lobbying against ISTEA's acceptance of rail, bus and bike transportation. Nationwide, state transportation departments are trying to reduce or eliminate programs that fund non-road projects.

"We're concerned that ISTEA not be stripped and gutted by the highway lobby," says James Corless, campaign communications manager for the Surface Transportation Policy Project in Washington, D.C. "Given the car industry's enormous clout in Congress, it's a real threat."

Prior to 1991, federal transportation law was basically a road, tire and asphalt policy. Congress dispersed money from the gas tax-supported Highway Trust Fund to the states, which spent the money on expanding the interstate system. "There's always been a perverse incentive to build new roads," says Corless. "You either built more highways or you lost your federal funding."

ISTEA represented an enormous change in national transportation policy. First, states were required to set aside a specific percentage of federal funds for programs to mitigate the effects of highways and habitat destruction. Under ISTEA Enhancement and Congestion Mitigation Air Quality programs, for example, the state of Oregon has spent millions of dollars on bus, bike and pedestrian modes, as well as innovative transit-based developments such as the Belmont Dairy.

"Some of these projects had been kicked around for over 10 years," says Mia Birk, Portland's bicycle program coordinator. "But in the pre-ISTEA era, there was simply no money available. Now we're starting to see a leveling of the playing field."

ISTEA-funded programs have exploded across the country: the Tamien Child Care Center at one of San Jose, California's major transportation hubs, the Ybor City Electric Streetcar in Tampa, Florida, and the Shuttle Bug Reverse Commute Project in suburban Chicago. According to the Bicycle Federation of America, over $1 billion has been directed to alternative transportation projects since the passage of ISTEA six years ago. …

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