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Pedaling legislation

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People are fat. Oil needs drive foreign policy. Glaciers are melting. Bikes can help.

None of that should trigger any double takes, but what’s more surprising is that the city of Missoula, despite a rapidly growing cycling community, hasn’t splurged on bike infrastructure since the late 1990s.

With the aid of various bike advocacy groups, city officials hope to change that by helping pressure legislators in Washington to adopt an alternative transportation grant program and make Missoula a pilot city. The grant, if approved, could provide up to $50 million for building bikeways both connected to and independent of existing roads in the city. But, just to reiterate, the program doesn’t exist yet and, because of the pending recession, may never.

“Things are changing already in Washington. Folks are taking deep breaths trying to understand what the banking package will mean,” says Mayor John Engen. “I don’t pretend to be the oracle of congressional activity, but if we’re not asking…we’re missing the boat.”

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and the Bikes Belong Coalition—two national non-profits aimed at promoting people-powered transportation—released a report Oct. 20 in conjunction with their campaign to get municipalities amped up on the proposed grant program. Alternative transportation advocates hope to convince Congress to make it a part of the reauthorized 2010 Transportation Bill by sowing interest in communities like Burlington, Vt., Fort Wayne, Ind., and Missoula.

“Reauthorization of the Transportation Bill is scheduled for Oct. 1, 2009, but it’s not unusual for this kind of thing to get delayed,” says Kevin Mills, vice president of Rails-to-Trails. “Early next year this is going to be very high on the new Congress’s agenda.”

The groups’ report—available in PDF format at www.railstotrails.org—basically presents case studies on how infrastructure expansion can lead to more cycling for transportation purposes. The report claims that even a modest increase in the percentage of local trips taken without a car could reduce U.S. annual mileage by 69 billion miles, saving $3.8 billion in fuel and reducing CO2 emissions by 33 million tons.

If Missoula eventually wins the grant, Jim Sayer of the Adventure Cycling Association thinks the money could best be spent bridging broken connections on bike paths, sidewalks and regional trail systems. “If we could invest in all three, we could have one of the best systems in the country,” he says.

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