Protecting Trail Funding — RTC rides to AAA

by Seidler Productions

After the American Automobile Association (AAA) put out a call to cut existing trail programs from their funding source, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has been attempting to meet with them, with no success.

Monday, December 13, RTC President Keith Laughlin forced the situation and hand-delivered a petition with more than 51,000 signatures to AAA main offices in central Florida (33,000 of those signatures were from AAA members). It was a frigid morning (yeah, I know, but this is Florida), but he was accompanied by cyclists who came from all over the state.

The petition proclaims the ongoing, proven need for trail, bicycle and pedestrian programs as currently mandated under the Highway Trust Fund. AAA wants the funding for those “other types” of mobility projects kicked out. Transit programs have been in the trust fund the 1970s, bicycling and walking since 1991.

It’s been years since we’ve been able to get by by car alone. We have to ride bicycles, we have to be able to walk, we have to have livable, walkable communities and this is what we’re trying to communicate to AAA.
They want to become a community partner, they came to central Florida to be a community partner. They came for our lifestyle. And I think we’re out here today to explain to AAA you need to be part of our community too.

— Brad Kuhn, Bike Walk Central Florida

AAA has responded that they are not anti-bike. Their central claim is they are “simply calling for a change of accounting, not actually the elimination of any programs.” RTC rightly calls that disingenuous, saying:

The fundamental question is whether we want our transportation dollars to fund a balanced transportation system or one that is solely reliant on automobiles. “Highway Trust Fund” is a misleading name dating to the 1950s and the founding of the Interstate system. It is a transportation trust fund that has supported transit for 40 years and trails, bicycling and walking for nearly 20 years. It is not realistic to believe that programs removed from the HTF, which operate through well-established channels using agreed-upon formulas, will be resurrected through other funding channels.

Another AAA statement claims that “extraneous spending must be eliminated from the HTF to ensure safe roadways for our users.” RTC’s response:

Contrary to Mr. Gagnon’s letter, a deteriorating highway system cannot be blamed on transportation funding flexibility. Too little is spent on active transportation to make a dent in the problem. The main culprits are lack of political will to invest more in transportation and the prioritization of road building over maintenance.

That’s the truth. We seem to find the money to endlessly add capacity and increase traffic flow.

I have some quibbles with the way we build many of our trails as recreation-centric facilities—lacking a proper interface with street networks and “closing” at night. Trails should be built with transportation funds and as such, they should be designed and maintained as transportation facilities. It would be harder for organizations like AAA to take shots at trail funding in the HTF if trails were not constructed, managed, promoted and thus naturally perceived primarily as places to go play with our toys.

For your reading enjoyment, the following is the text of Don Gagnon’s letter. The image is linked to a scan of the original article.

Use the Highway Trust Fund to Pay Only for Highways

More than 10 months have passed since the federal transportation budget expired, and astonishingly, no action appears close as we approach the one-year expiration mark.

During this time, the Administration and Congress have had to enact several emergency funding measures–continuing resolutions—to keep the federal transportation funds flowing and transportation-related agencies open.

Rumors about what ultimately will be in the Administration’s transportation reauthorization proposal abound. In addition, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair James Oberstar has already issued his version of a reauthorization bill. What Representative Oberstar’s version does, and what the Administration’s version is expected to do, is further expand the scope of projects on which federal Highway Trust Fund money may be spent.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what each federal reauthorization since 1991 has done: make federal highway monies more “flexible.” That so=-called flexibility means using gas taxes not just for highways, but for “nonmotorized” transportation—including sidewalks and hiking and bike trails—as well as for transit and even completely unrelated projects such as museums.

All of this flexibility over the last two decades dovetails—not coincidentally—with an increasingly deteriorating highway system. Two separate federal commissions to study the issue have put the annual highway funding shortfall at $89 billion—and that’s just to maintain our existing roads and bridges.

Throughout this same period, the federal gas tax sat at 18.4 cents per gallon. Some of the more thoughtful voices in Congress are finally recognizing that if the federal Highway Trust Fund is refocused solely on its original purpose—the nation’s critical highway system—a huge increase in the gas tax will not be necessary.

So, why not let the Highway Trust Fund pay for our highways as intended, and let general revenues address the other expenses? That is already happening to a limited extend through the supplemental continuing resolutions process. Making that shift complete and permanent won’t be easy, but it makes more sense than further flexing our federal Highway Trust Fund and then fighting for a large fuel tax increase that will still leave our nation’s highways underfunded and falling apart.

Don Gagnon
President and Chief Executive Officer
AAA Mid-Atlantic

6 replies
  1. Tito Balducci
    Tito Balducci says:

    I don’t give you money for you to get involved in politics, I give you money for road assistance in case needed.

    Careful … stay out of my bike trails!!

  2. bencott
    bencott says:

    i wonder if they’d change their tune if the petition held the signatures of 33,000 AAA members who planned to cancel their memberships.

  3. JohnB
    JohnB says:

    I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with level of advocacy that goes on to acquire federal transportation money for certain kinds of trails. I’ve heard some of that kind of advocacy from IMBA (International Mountain Biking Association) at the National Bike Summit. It’s nice to have mountain biking trails, and if everyone agreed it’s okay to spend that money on recreational trails, I’d have no problem with it, but I think it’s a little disingenuous to try to sell some of them as “transportation facilities”.

  4. Vincent Hsu
    Vincent Hsu says:

    Partly as a result of reading this post I joined RTC and FBA as a member. Keri given this is the end of the year perhaps you could post an article about which bicycle advocacy organizations you recommend for charitable giving. Thanks.

    • Keri
      Keri says:

      Thank you, John. You’re so sweet!

      Vincent, the Florida Bicycle Association is the one I would support. FBA programs include CyclingSavvy, the Bicycle Law Enforcement Toolkit and various legislative initiatives (including helping bicyclists gain access to limited access bridges and repealing the MBL law and possibly fixing the FTR law).

      A post about this is a good idea! I’ll work on one.

Comments are closed.