President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of Elaine Chao to lead the U.S. Department of Transportation, along with a Republican-controlled Congress, may stifle the advancement of bicycle and pedestrian safety efforts for New Jersey.
Unlike some of Trump’s other cabinet nominees, Chao actually has some experience in the department in which she would be expected to oversee. She previously worked as labor secretary under President George W. Bush, and served as deputy transportation secretary under President George H.W. Bush.
But Chao has also served as a fellow with the Heritage Foundation, which has written and advocated for multiple bills that wiped out federal funding for biking and walking. The foundation pushed for a bill devolving transportation to the states that also struck the Transportation Alternatives program (TAP). They used misleading numbers; for example, they stated that the Transportation Enhancements program (precursor to TAP) accounted for 10 percent of all transportation funding, when the truth is it was just 10 percent of one program — or less than 2 percent of overall funding.
Assuring that funding is available for bicycle and pedestrian projects is essential to states, especially New Jersey, which has been designated a “Pedestrian-Bicycle Focus State” by the Federal Highway Administration. However, the transportation plank of the Republican Party’s 2016 platform is focused exclusively on highways, so the appropriation of federal funds for bicycle and pedestrian safety could come under attack each year as Congress negotiates the next year’s budget.
That’s a big problem for New Jersey, where federal funding represents the lion’s share of funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects in New Jersey. The Garden State currently receives roughly $17 million each year in federal dollars under the Surface Transportation Block Grant (STBG) Set-aside (which replaced TAP under the FAST Act), and these funds are awarded to towns and counties to make roads safer for pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers. The state-funded Bikeways program, by contrast, allocates only $1 million per year. And although the state’s Transportation Trust Fund is now on a path to solvency, no additional funding was exclusively allocated for pedestrian or bicycle safety during those negotiations.
While the dollars allocated under STBG Set-aside are mandated by federal policy and not directly controlled by the Secretary of Transportation, much of the bike and pedestrian advocacy at the federal level is focused on maintaining funding for non-motorized transport during these negotiations. Attacks were successfully fought off in the Senate in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, and in the House in 2015.
If another attack is to be fought off in 2017, we’re going to rely on New Jersey’s congressional delegation to get in the ring — and it’s our job as advocates to make sure they do. The National Bike Summit, which takes place in March, will present advocates with the opportunity to reach out to members of both the House and Senate. As the League of American Bicyclists’ Vice President of Government Relations Caron Whitaker put it, “If you think this was a year to skip the National Bike Summit, think again.”