Dear Tennessee: Why Building More Traditional Roads Won’t Work

There’s a bill advancing in the Tennessee legislature that would gut bicycle and pedestrian funding in the Volunteer State.  House Bill 1650 sponsored by Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah and State Senator Mike Carter would prohibit spending gas tax funds on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.  At issue is a proposed gas tax increase.

Like their counterparts in Tennessee, Indiana taxpayers have shown little interest in raising taxes to fund needed road repairs.

Like their counterparts in Tennessee, Indiana taxpayers have shown little interest in raising taxes to fund needed road repairs.

Here’s Senator Carter’s take:

“Would we need a gas tax [increase] if we weren’t building hiking trails, bike trails and bicycle trails? That’s just going to be an answer that you’ll never win in the population.”

The short answer, Senator Carter, is yes, you would still need to raise the gas tax.  I’ve traveled through your state.  Your roads are in terrible shape and it’s not because you spend a statistically insignificant amount of your road budget on bicycle paths.    As for reaching the general public, they’re smarter than you give them credit for.  Try the following arguments.

1. Roads are expensive.

We need more money to maintain the ones we have and build new ones.  That’s why we need to raise the gas tax!  A big part of the reason that roads are expensive is because cars and trucks chew them up.  If you can’t fund the maintenance on what you already have, why in heaven’s name would you continue to build more of the same?  Isn’t that the very definition of insanity?

2.  Bike “trails” are cheap.

If you had better bicycle infrastructure in Tennessee, more people might choose to bicycle to work instead of driving.  In fact, a significant number already do, no thanks to you.  They also do so in places like Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Montreal, New York, Chicago, Portland, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Washington DC, Cleveland, Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle, New Orleans and a whole host of other first world places.  Bicycles don’t destroy roads because they weigh far less than cars.   Instead of building new roads, you could save Tennessee taxpayers a ton of maintenance money by building new bicycle infrastructure and encouraging people to cycle instead of using their cars and trucks, especially for short trips.

Communities everywhere are embracing bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure because it makes economic sense.

Bike/Ped infrastructure in the form of sidepaths are more transportation than recreation.  They take far less base material and space than even a single lane of road and provide many benefits.

3.  But we need all those roads.

Really?  Says who?  When it comes right down to it, the only reason you “need” all those roads is because you’ve used a car centric model to develop communities since the 1950s.  Maybe it’s time for a new model instead of new roads.  You don’t exactly have to reinvent the wheel here.  Other places have figured this out and are moving ahead.  You can, too.  The only question is whether you will choose to bankrupt your constituents first.

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail has revitalized a large swath of the city's urban core by reintroducing street  level vitality to a neighborhood that was on the verge of failing.

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail redefines what an urban neighborhood can be.  The end result is economic vitality where there was none previously.

The simple truth is that the all-car-all-the-time model is unsustainable.  Isn’t it obvious at this point?   There’s not enough money available to continue to do what we’ve been doing for the last seventy years.  It no longer works and it’s not going to work because the growth required to make it work is gone and not coming back for a long time if ever.  To quote Don Henley and the Eagles in “The Last Resort”, there are no new frontiers.

If I could talk to State Senator Carter, I’d tell him this.  Bicycles are the solution, not the problem.  Everywhere they’ve been integrated into the transportation mix has been made better as a result.  If you want to fix your fiscal problems in Tennessee, stop building roads your constituency is unwilling to fund maintenance for and start building something that requires a fraction of the cost to build and maintain.  That’s a solution, like it or not.



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