Proposed National Bicycle Route System Fails Cost-Benefit Analysis Test

In the face of massive shortfalls in federal and state highway funding, what are FHWA and many state DOTs busy doing? Creating what is envisioned as a 50,000-mile US Bicycle Route System (USBRS), analogous to the Interstate Highway System. As of this month, 10 “parent routes” have been officially designated, along with three subsidiary “child routes.” Like the Interstates, the parent routes have one- and two-digit numbers, with odd numbers for north-south routes and even numbers for east-west ones.

Back in 2010, when then-DOT Secretary Ray LaHood got up on a table at a bicycle convention and vowed to put bicycles on a level playing field with cars, I thought he was just bloviating, as politicians will do. One commentator remarked that LaHood apparently thought he was Secretary of Recreation, not Transportation. But it turns out he was serious.

I only learned about USBRS last week, when my local newspaper carried an article about Florida DOT’s plans to develop US BR1 in this state, 541 miles from Jacksonville to Key West, more or less paralleling US 1. It is just one of four USBRS routes FDOT plans to establish, another being US BR90, parallel to US 90 from Pensacola to St. Augustine. FDOT bike route coordinator David Lee is quoted in the article saying, “We were all busy building roads and highways. Usually when you ride a bike, you don’t think about traveling across a state,”– especially one as hot, humid, and rainy as Florida is much of the year.

Wikipedia has a rather comprehensive description of the overall USBRS program, including a table listing currently planned routes. When you Google the subject, you will frequently encounter the program’s number one booster, the Adventure Cycling Association. ACA’s Virginia Sullivan loves to make the Interstate highways analogy, telling a reporter recently that US Bicycle Routes will promote tourism, and because bicycle trips take so much longer than car trips, bike tourists will stick around longer and “pour money into the local economy.”

Let me step back and put this into perspective. As a nation, we are seriously under-investing in basic highway maintenance, but our federal and state DOTs are busily creating a nationwide system of bike routes? There is no mention in any of the material I could find online about what any of these bike routes will cost, or who is supposed to pay for them. There are only two answers to the “who-pays” question. Either highway users will get stuck with the bill, further depleting federal and state highway trust funds. Or general taxpayer funds will be used-to benefit the relative handful of people who enjoy long-distance bike touring.

I have nothing against bike riders or bike paths. Several of my family members are avid bike riders. What I’m talking about here is a sense of priorities-the ability to distinguish between necessities and “nice-to-have” amenities. There is also a question of basic fairness. Why should I-either as a highway user-tax payer or a general taxpayer-have to pay for someone else’s hobby?

When federal and state transportation agencies plead for increased funding, they should be able to show us that they have done rigorous benefit-cost analysis to ensure that whatever limited funds they have are invested in the highest and best uses. Creating a national set of bike routes fails that test.

This article also appears in Robert Poole’s Surface Transportation Newsletter #121.