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Houston Advocates Rally to Save Bike-Ped Funds From Motorhead Bureaucrats

1:35 PM PDT on March 24, 2011

Nobody would accuse the Houston region of lacking auto infrastructure. Now local bicycling and pedestrian advocates are fighting to protect their tiny slice of the pie. They're anxiously awaiting a final decision tomorrow about a pro-road money grab by the Houston-Galveston Area's Transportation Policy Council.

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The Council has zeroed in on an $80 million chunk of funding that was to be distributed between bike and pedestrian projects, transit, livable communities, roads and freight. Regional transportation officials decided earlier this year to dedicate 100 percent of the money to road budgets.

Their efforts to divert funding from transit, bicycling, and walking didn't stop there. Council members also elected to take an additional $12 million in funds already allocated toward "alternative modes" and redirect it toward infrastructure for automobiles.

Dozens of bike projects are in jeopardy, as well as new sidewalks needed to help ensure the safety of pedestrians near the city's coming light rail system.

Advocates for active transportation in the region have battled back. A coalition led by the local organizations Houston Tomorrow, Bike Houston and the Citizens' Transportation Coalition have produced a petition with more than 2,000 signatures opposing the Council's actions.

At tomorrow's Transportation Policy Council meeting, the advocates plan to confront regional policymakers with an alternative plan, under which 45 percent of the money would be spent on transit, cycling or sidewalks.

"The feeling among a lot of people is that the time is now," said Jay Crossley, of Houston Tomorrow. "At the very least we’re going to have hundreds of people in the room."

The Houston region has traditionally under-invested in sustainable transportation projects, according to Robin Holzer of the Citizen's Transportation Coalition. But the Transportation Council's most recent move is especially egregious.

For one, she said, the money that has been targeted comes from the two federal programs that are aimed at supporting bike, pedestrian and transit projects -- Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) and the Metropolitan Mobility (STP-MM). Those funds can make a big difference for active transportation projects, but it's a drop in a the bucket compared to what's already being spent on roads. Combined, the two funds combined represent only about five percent of the $9.8 billion total federal investment in Houston's transportation system under the region's four-year plan, according to Holzer.

"They got greedy," she said.

Furthermore, advocates point out, the Council's decision goes against the region's own guidelines. Its Transportation Improvement Program, which was developed to help meet regional mobility and environmental goals, calls for a maximum 55 percent of CMAQ and STP-MM funds to be spent on roads, with the rest for other modes.

Crossley, for one, doesn't think spending 45 percent of the funds on biking and walking is too much to ask.

"You're already spending way too much money on roads," he said. "Why don’t you just stick to the plan? This is the one opportunity to honor that."

Crossley said Houston's active transportation community has never been so organized around a single issue. And the group is expecting a big turnout for tomorrow's meeting.

The Transportation Council will consider four options for spending the money -- the most generous of which allocates just 11 percent to alternative modes. Alan Clark, director of transportation planning with H-GAC, says that the 11 percent is an improvement over last year's total: 10 percent. He added that under two of the four proposals, no cycling or pedestrian projects that are currently slated for construction would be delayed.

Local advocates are asking the Council to do better. The fifth alternative [PDF], which Houston Tomorrow has produced, calls for no more than 55 percent of CMAQ and STP-MM funds to be spent on roads -- the same commitment outlined in the region's official guidelines.

Advocates say it's more than just $92 million and a handful of projects that are at stake. This decision will set a precedent for a region that has begun making strides to mend its gas-guzzling ways.

The Council's argument was, "'we're just doing what we’ve done historically,'" said Crossley. "But historically we’ve just wasted that money on new roads."

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