Vision of freeway must include bicycling path

It is my view that the opinion piece by Larry Osborne about the proposed bike path along the freeway, in Sunday's Nevada Appeal, contains a number of half-truths and misconceptions.

It shows an incomplete understanding not only of federal and state transportation policy, but also of the efforts that Carson City and the Nevada Department of Transportation have been making over the past month or so to include a bike path/multi-use trail as a part of Phase 1B of the Carson City freeway project.

Funding for the Carson City freeway is coming from a combination of federal highway funds and a local gas tax. TEA-21 (its long name is the Transportation Enhancement Act of the 21st Century) passed in 1998, is the federal legislation that sets funding levels for transportation and establishes our national transportation policy.

TEA-21 specifically mandates that bicycle and pedestrian facilities be included in all transportation projects. This is because it is now recognized that an overemphasis on automobile transportation has had significant negative consequences, among them intractable traffic congestion in many of our towns and cities. And simply building new roadway capacity does not resolve traffic congestion in the long run - numerous studies show that new lane capacity leads to more users, hence, after a while, the new roadways are as congested as before.

By encouraging a national transportation system that includes all models - pedestrians, bicycles, public transportation - TEA-21 is building a system in which people can have a realistic choice between alternative transportation modes - thus in the long run diminishing our over-reliance on automobiles, with the associated negative impacts of traffic congestion, air pollution, and so on.

The Nevada Department of Transportation is, of course, aware of this policy, but chooses not to follow it in most projects. Larry Osborne's statement that "NDOT funds are to be used for construction of roads and highways" is simply wrong, if he means funds must be used only for roads and highways. NDOT funds are to be used for all modes of transportation, including bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

The bike path/multi-use trail along the Carson City freeway is part of the Bicycle Element of Carson City's Multimodal Transportation Plan. The Bicycle Element was prepared with a great deal of public input, and when implemented, it will be an important part of Carson City's transportation system. Remember, a transportation system is more than roads and highways.

Regarding the relationship of the multi-use trail to funding for the freeway, Mr. Osborne says, "If the bike plan is included in the final design without being funded, then $70 million of federal funding for the northern leg of the freeway could be held up ..."

Actually, its the other way around. As long as the bike path remains in the state's transportation plan, not constructing it as a part of the bypass will hold up funding. Federal funding guidelines require that the path be constructed as a part of the project, unless the path is removed from the state transportation plan. And removing the path from the state plan would require public notice and public hearings, which take time.

And why does Mr. Osborne assume that the bike path/multi-use trail will not be funded? Let's look at some relative amounts of money here.

-- The current estimated cost of the bike path/multi-use trail is $3.4 million. This is less than half of NDOT's original estimate. Almost half of this $3.4 million cost is retaining walls, as in some places there is not enough right-of-way for a path along the base of the freeway embankment. City staff have worked with generous landowners to significantly lower path cost by obtaining donations of easements, so that now in some places walls will not have to be built. And the possibility of further cost savings exists.

- The estimated $3.4 million cost of the path is about 4 percent of the first phase of the freeway project. Since the cost of the path is such a relatively small portion of the overall cost, the possibility exists that the path could be funded by cost savings in other portions of the project.

For example, the construction contract for Phase 1A came in at over $1 million less than NDOT had budgeted. But if the path isn't included in phase 1B of the project, this possibility is lost.

- Nevada recently received $10 million in unexpected gas tax revenues through the Revenue Alignment Budget Act. Why not use some of this to fund the multi-use trail?

These are just a couple of the funding possibilities that exist. And notice that this list does not include extending the local gas tax!

But let's step back now from the freeway and look at Carson City. It's the state capital, and it's a pretty town in a small valley. It's also one of only two Nevada cities to tax itself for a freeway - to the tune of around $19 million over 15 years. This is a very significant contribution for such a small city.

And for this, NDOT builds us an absolutely bare-bones structure that is not even consistent with our local transportation plan, that will be visible from throughout the city, and that will cut the town in half. By supporting landscaping and a multi-use trails along the bypass, the Carson City Supervisors have shown themselves to have vision - a vision that the board of the Chamber of Commerce seems to lack.

And I don't understand this lack of vision. The mission statement of the chamber of commerce is to "continually strive to build a healthy economy and high quality of life in the Carson City area." Surely somebody in the chamber must know that a properly landscaped freeway bypass and multi-use trail will enhance the quality of life in Carson City. Surely someone on the chamber board knows how walkable and bikable communities and how bike paths and walking trails help a town to

- recruit and retain businesses

- draw visitors and tourists

- allow residents healthy transportation options and lifestyles.

Wouldn't you think?

But the Nevada Department of Transportation is a big and powerful state agency that controls a lot of money. This is like a playground confrontation. A staring contest. The big guy dares the little guy to blink. The little guy stands his ground and stares back. The big guy begins to understand that the little guy means what he says and thinks, maybe we can work this out.

Well, Carson City is the little guy, NDOT is the big buy and the chamber of commerce is like a well-meaning but clueless friend who steps between them and says to the big guy, that's OK, I'll blink for him! And the fruitful, cooperative work that has taken place in the last several weeks between NDOT and the city is undercut and jeopardized.

In conclusion, I think the chamber board's decision to recommend that the bike path be pulled from the freeway project not only is based on inadequate and incomplete information, it also appears to be contrary to their own mission and goals. I wonder how many chamber members feel the same, especially those who understand how the health of their business is linked to the quality of life in their community.


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