Friday, March 16, 2012

Epic ride protests transportation bill

Rebecca Rusch, Greg Martin to cycle from New York City to D.C.

Professional cyclist Rebecca Rusch is preparing for a 500-mile bike trip to protest federal funding cuts for nonmotorized transportation and bike trails. Express photo by Roland Lane.

Local cyclists Rebecca Rusch and Greg Martin are going the distance to support federal funding for and access to mountain biking trails this week—literally, as they ride 500 miles from New York City to Washington, D.C.

Rusch, a professional competitive mountain biker, and Martin, director of the Wood River Bike Coalition and trails coordinator for the Blaine County Recreation District, are joining roughly 20 other bikers from cycling advocacy group Bikes Belong to storm D.C. to protest funding cuts for nonmotorized transportation.

The new version of a federal transportation funding bill, meant to replace the one that expires at the end of this month, would reduce money for pedestrian and bike infrastructure, Martin said.

"Everything from [road] shoulders to bike lanes to sidewalks—everything that doesn't involve an automobile was threatened," he said.

Currently, states are required to set aside a certain percentage of federal transportation funding for infrastructure such as hiking trails, bike paths and bike lanes. That requirement was not introduced in the new version of the bill.

The Senate has since passed an addendum to the bill that includes money for safety improvements for pedestrians and bikers, but the House has not.

Martin said cutting funding for nonmotorized travel simply doesn't make sense as obesity rates and the price of gas continue to rise.

"We're in a tough economy, but going backwards on pedestrian and cycling infrastructure—it's counterproductive," he said. "Giving people a safe, practical alternative—to ride their bikes or walk—is a win-win."

If funding is lost, Martin said, the county Recreation District may have to forgo certain projects funded by federal Recreational Trails Program grants.

"We apply for RTP grants nearly every year," he said.

Martin and Rusch will also be working with Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, to ensure that mountain bikers have a voice in the proposed Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, commonly known as CIEDRA.

The bill would designate 332,775 acres of wilderness on the Sawtooth and Challis national forests, a designation lauded by conservationists but viewed with less enthusiasm by bikers, who would lose 35 miles of mountain biking trails.

Rusch said the problem with wilderness designations is that though they are meant to keep ATVs and other motorized vehicles out, the language of the Wilderness Act would exclude all "mechanized" vehicles—including bikes—from using the land.

"I don't think they necessarily want to keep mountain bikes off the land," she said. "It's not doing the same damage as a motor vehicle."

Martin said mountain bikers have largely been left out of the CIEDRA discussion.

"The problem is that from a mountain biker's perspective, we didn't have a seat at the table," he said. "We're trying to play catch-up."

Rusch and Martin said they don't necessarily oppose wilderness or CIEDRA—and they don't believe Simpson or most environmental advocates oppose mountain biking on public land.

"We're kind of a casualty of what they are really going after," Martin said. "They want to protect the land, and we want to help them do that in a way that doesn't exclude mountain bikes."

Martin and Rusch left Thursday for their trip, and will spend five days travelling through New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C., promoting awareness of transportation issues.

Katherine Wutz:

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