Mica faces backlash — constituents demand pedestrian and bike funding
Governmental bodies in Florida — some of them in the district of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica — are urging the influential Congressman not to eliminate federal funding for programs that construct sidewalks, bike trails, and other facilities for walking and cycling.
Mica, a Winter Park Republican who is leading the writing of a new federal transportation bill, has said he wants to streamline the process by which billions of federal gas-tax dollars are portioned out each year.
Mica is now facing widespread resistance from governmental entities in his Central Florida district. Since late April, resolutions opposing elimination of funds for pedestrian and bike facilities have been adopted by four governments in the district: the Volusia County Council, the Putnam County Board of Commissioners, and the cities of Holly Hill and Palatka.
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which has been monitoring activity by local and county governments, told New Urban Network that additional resolutions opposing Mica’s intent are expected to be adopted by the Volusia Transportation Planning Organization (the equivalent of a metropolitan planning organization) and by St. Johns and Flagler Counties — all areas that Mica represents.
Outside the district, the Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization adopted a policy statement opposing the shift, and the City of New Smyrna Beach passed a similar resolution.
The governmental bodies are urging continued federal funding for programs such as Safe Routes to Schools, recreational trails, and “transportation enhancements.” The local and county entities oppose shifting federal transportation funding to generic block grant allocations that would be administered by state transportation departments.
Mica has said he would leave it to each state to decide whether to devote part of its block grant to projects intended to produce safer and more accessible networks for pedestrians and cyclists. “I favor some attention to enhancements,” Mica told the Sentinel this spring, “but there’s no reason I have to dictate it.”
Advocates of such programs believe that many states — which historically have been more oriented to road construction, and sometimes under the thumb of the highway lobby — will reduce or eliminate funding that benefits non-motorists.
Ananth Presad, who recently became Florida’s transportation secretary, has already indicated that his state, under the new Republican Governor Rick Scott, regards non-highway projects as a lower priority. “We must give serious consideration to whether — when resources and dollars are at a premium — spending money on sidewalks, bike trails, beautification and other projects like this is the most prudent use of taxpayer money,” Presad said during an April Congressional hearing run by Mica.
“That’s foreshadowing,” warns Ken Bryan, Florida director of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. It indicates a belief by Presad that “in tough times, money should not be spent on walking and biking facilities,” Bryan says. “Mica knows that.”
Wrong turn for Florida
The reduction or elimination of funds that make routes safer and more comfortable for walking and biking would be an especially hard blow to Florida, because it’s a state with an atrocious safety record. “More pedestrians are killed in Florida — particularly children and seniors — than in any other state,” Jake Lynch, a spokesperson for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Washington, emphasized to New Urban Network.
Dangerous by Design 2011, a recent report from Transportation for America, rated the Orlando-Kissimmee area (in Mica’s district) the most lethal region for pedestrians of all 52 US regions that were examined. The second-most-hazardous metro area in the US was Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater. Third-most-hazardous was Jacksonville. Fourth was Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach.
With the four most dangerous metropolitan areas in the entire nation, Florida would be poorly served by eliminating the funding specifically targeted at programs that serve people on foot and on bikes, Bryan argues.
The Conservancy, which, despite its name, is concerned with more than just rail-trail projects, disputes the idea that facilities for pedestrian and cyclists are unnecessary expenses. “When times are tough, that’s when you need to spend on hiking, biking, and trails,” says Bryan. “That’s when you can get the biggest bang for the buck. That’s when you can get mode shift” — the switching of motorists to walking, biking, and use of mass transit.
Federal money for non-highway uses has produced “a robust combination of sidewalks, intersection improvements,” and other projects that serve non-motorists well, Bryan asserts. “The irony,” he says, “is that Mica has always been our champion. He’s been a huge friend and supporter. ... I’ll dare say there’s been more trail activity in Mica’s district than any other in the US.”
The series of resolutions from local governmental bodies is not the result of a campaign by the Conservancy, Bryan says. “It’s gotten legs on its own. The resolution wasn’t drawn up by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. It was drawn up by Volusia County and its attorney.”
For 10 years, the state allocated $300 million a year in taxes on the recording of deeds to support a statewide program — initially Preservation 2000, later Florida Forever — that purchased land for uses such as walking and biking trails. The program began under Gov. Robert Martinez, a Republican, and continued under another Republican, Jeb Bush. Because of the economic downturn, “it hasn’t been funded for a couple of years,” according to Bryan.
The basic arrangement in Florida has been that the state would provide funds for trail acquisition; the federal government would supply the money for development, such as paving; and the local government would manage the resulting facility. Now that system is in jeopardy.
Pat Northey, vice chair of the Volusia County Council, said Safe Routes to Schools is critical to reducing juvenile fatalities. She described trails as a key factor in attracting tourists, supporting recreation, and thus providing an economic stimulus for the area.
Mica hopes to have his committee hold debate in July on a new transportation bill, which would probably run for six years. His office did not respond to New Urban Network’s request for comment.