Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Guns or Butter

Ronald Utt of the Heritage Foundation has proposed that Congress rescind funding for bicycle and pedestrian special projects to cover the damage done to the Gulf by Hurricane Katrina. These transportation enhancement funds go toward many bicycle facilities and educational programs.

With the costs of the hurricane clean up and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq projected to top $400 billion, something has to give.

So far, the civilian population has felt very few effects of the war, other than rising gasoline prices. If one of the purposes of government is to set spending priorities, it would seem (to me, at least) that a Marine in Fallujah get replacements for his defective body armor and an up-armored Humvee, before I get a new bike path. An elderly couple displaced from their home on the Gulf should get priority over a new bicycle education program. To my mind, those are simple, moral choices.

But when I proposed just that on the Thunderhead e-mail list, a firestorm erupted. I was vilified as an 'enemy of cycling'. What follows is the post that started it all.

I'll take the dog-in-the-manger role here.

When we face $200 billion in clean up costs for the hurricanes this year, couple that with another $200 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, compound it with the ideological refusal to raise taxes or reconsider ill-conceived tax breaks, it's inevitable that the middle class must eventually make sacrifices to support these policies. So far, the majority of the country hasn't been greatly effected by the wars or the hurricanes. We've watched them on television and complained about ever-rising energy prices, but that's about all. It has a price and we'll pay that price via taxes. Our children will be paying that price as well because our government continues borrowing money as it goes deeper into debt.

Paying down the war debt and rebuilding in disaster areas are higher priorities than pet projects like bicycle facilities. Besides, it can be argued that building expensive facilities for a small number of road users is not a responsible use of public funds. I'm thinking about bike lanes here, but similar reasoning applies to using transportation funds to build linear parks with multi-use trails. If they're recreational facilities that have little or no transportation utility, they should be built with park monies.

This is nothing more than the classic dilemma of guns or butter. Pick one.

Ok, so that was fairly tame. After this next one, I was accused of "undermining Thunderhead's agenda". What's next - thought crimes?

This is the second time I've been called an 'enemy of cycling' because I've asked inconvenient questions or failed to fall into lockstep with the party line.

The monies for bicycle facilities are bargaining chips. They can be traded away as our legislators reach a compromise on the federal budget. Frankly, I'd be surprised to see the funds survive at all. Most senators and congressmen don't ride bikes, don't care about bikes, and don't have enough constituents who do to make a difference. The point is that we don't have the political clout to influence the outcome.

Allow me to clarify the 'expensive facilities' assertion. If we spent tax money to build something for the exclusive use of a tiny fraction of the public, say, a highway lane reserved for Lexus owners, no one (except Lexus owners) would deny that it's an inappropriate use of public funds. Yet we expect politicians and voters to approve such facilities for cyclists. If it's wrong to build something for the exclusive use of Lexus owners, it's equally wrong to build something for the exclusive use of cyclists. Is it any wonder that the public sees us as merely another group looking for a government handout?

We've spent ever more money on facilities over the last 30 years, but it's had little effect on the number of cyclists out there. If bicycle sales are any indication, the number of cyclists has remained relatively flat. Worse, their average age is getting older, telling us that young people just aren't interested. If the demographic shows an aging cycling population, a population that will decline as time passes, why should the politicians pay any attention to us? We can only hope that the recent increase in cycling gains some long-term converts, but I suspect that when fuel prices decline, the number of cyclists on our roads will decline as well.

Finally, Jxxx, if you believe that one's support for bike/ped facilities comprises a litmus test of a true bicycling advocate, you have an exceedingly narrow view of advocacy.

So, folks, that's my stab at wild-eyed radicalism!

I’m not going to change. I’ll continue working with the bicycling education programs in the area because when you get right down to the heart of it, advocacy is always local. I may write some scathing things about the unseemly grubbing at the public trough, though.


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