Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Transportation, Recreation, and Cash

There's a lot going on in the transportation scene in Georgia. Whether it's positive for state residents remains to be seen. The state legislature has passed a bill that permits multiple counties to vote on a regional transportation tax. You sort of have to wonder why this would have been prohibited to begin with...but Georgia is very anti-tax. The bill still has disadvantages. It stipulates a 10-year sunset, which makes it much harder to use for transit projects due to federal requirements. But at least transit is an allowable use! Unlike the gas tax. Also, the state DOT has much more control over the regional project list than seems reasonable.

How might this affect cycling? It could be bad if a lot of the funding goes to new bicycle-unfriendly highways or highway conversions. Or, it could be good if it pays for lots of new bicycle (and pedestrian) facilities, or the redesign of dangerous roads.

So what are the odds? So far, the DOT has argued that bicycle facilities were not eligible for gas tax funding, which was limited to "roads and bridges". However, roads are legally defined as any transportation facility and it doesn't actually limit funding to roads that service cars (not that this little detail has led to any extra funding for bicycle stuff). It does include bicycle lanes or sidewalks that are part of a larger "road or bridge" project. Will this attitude be extended to the new funding?

One of the main arguments for treating bicycle-only facilities differently is that it is not "real" transportation. Obviously, this is ridiculous. I've bicycled to work the majority of the time for about the past five years. And to the store, restaurant, friends houses, and everywhere else, and so have many other folks. I do most of this on city streets, not on bicycle paths. But there are plenty of people who do use paths for their commute or other travels, if it happens to be on their way.

There is also an awful lot of recreational travel, by every different mode, and that isn't a bad thing. Some people go out for a sunday drive, take a stroll, go sightseeing, or take a scenic route on their bicycle. Pretty soon, they get hungry, they stop at a restaurant, pop into a store, and boost the economy. It's an important part of life and use of our transportation infrastructure.

Then there is tons of travel that doesn't fall neatly into either category. If you stop to eat during your sunday drive, does it suddenly become a transportation trip to a restaurant? If you stop to enjoy the sunset during your bicycle trip home from work, or pedal a little harder to get some exercise, does it become recreational?

Cyclists and pedestrians want convenient access to stores and services

And finally, the big question: if a transportation facility is carrying an unusually large proportion of one type of trip or the other, why? And should we care? If most of the trips taken on the Silver Comet Trail are recreational, does it simply mean that it doesn't provide access to common destinations? Does it fail to connect to nearby stores and town centers? That would be like building a big highway with exits that lead to bumpy dirt roads. It discourages transportation. On the other hand, if we build highways that are stressful and ugly and only used out of necessity, those facilities may discourage recreational travel, and thus depress economic activity.
A couple rides along a four lane road, not the adjacent multi-use path with poor access & design

Ultimately, it is due time to support all types of travel for all reasons. The feds may have finally learned this. Has Georgia?

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