BY DOUG MCCLELLAN
WASHINGTON, D.C.—It’s “back to basics” for cycling advocates, after the midterm elections swept Republicans into power in the House and delivered an unexpected defeat to cycling’s most powerful supporter in Congress.
Facing a new Republican House Speaker and Majority Leader who have been hostile to federal funding for cycling, the industry will need to adjust its message and refocus on local organizing, officials said.
“The simple message for us is that we very much need to get back to basics and make sure the state and local grassroots machinery of the bicycle movement is in really good working order,” said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists.
“We’ll probably need to change the rhetoric a little bit and not focus as much on livability and climate change as reasons for getting behind bicycling,” Clarke added. Instead, he said, “we’ll need to talk a lot more about economic development, health and the obesity epidemic, and the costs involved of not getting people involved in riding their bikes.”
The most shocking loss to the industry was the defeat of Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar. By a 4,400-vote margin, Oberstar lost the northeastern Minnesota seat he has held for 36 years to Republican political newcomer Chip Craavack, a retired Navy and airline pilot.
Oberstar’s importance to cycling cannot be overstated, said Tim Blumenthal, president of Bikes Belong.
“Oberstar has done more for bicycling than any other elected official in the history of the United States,” Blumenthal said. “If you ride a bike path, or a dirt trail, or one of these new city facilities that make bicycling safer in traffic, you can thank Oberstar.”
As chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Oberstar ensured that Congress set aside millions of dollars for cycling infrastructure projects as part of the multibillion-dollar spending on transportation projects.
Now, the challenge will be to ensure that money for cycling infrastructure remains in the next transportation bill—if and when a new bill passes Congress. The multiyear measure is expected to finance some $500 billion in highway and other transportation projects.
“‘Fiscal constraint’ is the phrase that comes to mind first when I think about the next Congress,” Blumenthal said. “We’re going to have to sharpen our arguments and do a better job of explaining why investments in bicycle infrastructure and programs are cost-effective.”
Oberstar’s likely replacement as Transportation chairman is Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who as Republican leader of the committee has been sympathetic to cycling.
He’s supported Safe Routes to Schools, and the multi-million-dollar St. Johns River to the Sea Loop Trail, which goes through his northeastern Florida district.
Mica also attended the 2009 National Bike Summit. According to Jonathan Maus, publisher of BikePortland.org, Mica said that as a Republican, he had to support biking “quietly,” but boasted that Florida led the nation in rail-trails. “That’s pretty good for a right-wing, knuckle-dragging conservative,” Mica told Maus.
The League and America Bikes prepared a chart showing how many Congressional seats of importance to cycling changed parties (see related chart).
At least 32 members of the House Bike Caucus either retired or were defeated for reelection (a few races were still undecided at press time.)
The chart tracked other members who signaled their support for cycling by co-sponsoring one of three cycling related measures in the latest Congress: the ACT (Active Community Transportation) act, which would create $2 billion in grants for community cycling and walking projects; the Complete Streets Act, which would require transportation agencies to include pedestrians, cyclists, and disabled people in street planning; and a measure to expand Safe Routes to School to include high schools.
It also noted changes on the committees most important to cycling because they oversee transportation funding: House Transportation and Infrastructure and Senate Environment and Public Works.
“We’re not going to overreact,” Blumenthal said of the election results. “We’ve been building, as Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) says, ‘bike-partisan’ support for the past 10 years.”
Blumenthal said the biggest issue is not Republican control of the House but the challenge of financing a new transportation bill.