Last month's announcement of almost $9.8 million in federal grants looked like a windfall for state bicyclists and pedestrians.
On closer inspection, it was akin to being sideswiped by a convertible ' and then saluted by the driver's upraised middle finger.
While the state budgeted those federal dollars for 28 projects statewide for fiscal years 2007-09, officials also opted not to allocate another $20 million in eligible federal funding for bike and pedestrian projects. As a result, 92 community projects went unfunded across the state.
That decision by the state Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, with the governor's tacit approval, extends Wisconsin's tradition of ranking among the worst states for directing its share of federal money to bicycle and pedestrian projects.
'We've always ranked in the bottom five states nationally in funding transportation enhancements,' says Dar Ward, executive director for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin. 'It's getting worse.'
How much worse? Since the late 1990s, Wisconsin's funding of 'transportation enhancements' ' shorthand for bicycle, pedestrian and other alternatives to the usual road-building ' has slipped from about half the amount requested by cities, towns, villages and counties statewide to about 20%, according to federation figures.
Federal enhancement dollars pay for 80% of a typical bike project, with local government covering the remainder. One measure of the program's popularity in Wisconsin: Local units of government applied for more than twice the federal transportation enhancement funds available for calendar years 2006 and 2007.
'Local communities apply for this money, so they've gone through the planning process and decided this is important to them for economic development and tourism and for the health of their citizens and for transportation alternatives,' Ward says. 'They've done all their homework and then the money that's supposed to be there ' it's not there.'
As a result of the awards announced last month, Dane County bicyclists and pedestrians can look forward to two new segments of the Ice Age Junction Bicycle-Pedestrian Path, improvements to the Pheasant Branch Creek Corridor Trail and advancements in the Village of Oregon's historic downtown streetscape that will benefit pedestrians and cyclists alike. Total federal funding for these projects: $967,000.
The bad news is that a dozen similar projects were shut out, including Phase 2 of the Sherman Flyer bike route connecting Madison's near east side to Warner Park, Phase 1 of the Military Ridge Trail extension connecting it to the Capital City Trail, surfacing for the northern segment of the Badger State Trail connecting Fitchburg to Belleville, and development of a multi-use trail corridor linking Westport with Waunakee, Middleton and Governor Nelson State Park.
Total federal transportation enhancements funding that could have been applied to these 12 Dane County projects: $6.7 million and change.
Left unfunded, these projects may be backlogged until the next biennial budget cycle. Ward worries that some may be shelved altogether because of the state's inaction.
The nation's surface transportation law gives states discretion in apportioning their share of federal enhancements funds. Passed in August 2005 ' almost two years after the previous legislation had expired ' the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU, is as cumbersome and clumsy as its acronym.
'There is a pot of money for the surface transportation program,' Ward explains. 'The federal legislation says up to 10% of that money can be put aside for transportation enhancements.'
With the next state budget cycle on the horizon, Ward and the Bicycle Federation are launching a campaign to urge cyclists and pedestrians to contact their legislators, the governor's office and state Department of Transportation to press for full federal funding of qualifying projects. (For details, log on to www.bfw.org.)
'We recognize that the budget is a hard thing to balance,' Ward allows, 'but we don't think this is the thing that needs to be cut. It's such a small amount, less than one-third of 1% of the state's transportation budget even if they fully funded it.'
That kind of money won't build many miles of highway, she points out. But it might help fund 80 or 90 bicycle and pedestrian projects.
With the state only budgeting about one out of three dollars in available federal funding for bikers and walkers, Ward observes, there is a growing backlog of unfunded initiatives.
'It's ridiculous,' she says. 'It's token money at this point.'