Rails-to-Trails advocates to lobby Rep. Chuck Fleischmann

Rails-to-Trails advocates to lobby Rep. Chuck Fleischmann

May 14th, 2014 by Jim Tanner in Local Regional News

Chuck Fleischmann

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

A transportation funding bill advancing in Washington, D.C., could have a negative impact on such initiatives in Chattanooga, and 3rd District Rep. Chuck Fleischmann is the target of national advocates in town this week.

Marianne Fowler, a governmental affairs official with the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, told pedestrian and bicycle activists Tuesday that proposed policy changes could hinder many creative transportation projects in this area.

This week, a House subcommittee passed an appropriations bill that made significant changes to the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER discretionary grant program. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the grants allow the "DOT to invest in road, rail, transit and port projects that promise to achieve critical national objectives."

Since the program's inception in 2009, more than $4.1 billion has been awarded to projects across the nation, but the bill passed this week would limit TIGER grants to roads and bridges, ports and freight rail while specifically prohibiting funding of transit projects, streetscaping and bicycle or pedestrian infrastructure.

The measure also could eliminate funding for a light-rail system recently proposed for Chattanooga that would connect downtown with the airport and the Volkswagen plant.

"There would be no money for transit, no money for bicycle facilities, no money for sidewalks or streetscaping," Fowler said. "No money for anything other than vehicular traffic."

While the Senate is unlikely to pass these changes, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy hopes to defeat the measure in full House committee next week. For that to happen, they need four Republican members to join with all the Democrats on the committee in opposition, and Fleischmann serves on the committee and Fowler is meeting with his staff today to ask for him to vote against the proposal.

Fowler was one of three prominent advocates for alternate transportation resources who are in Chattanooga this week to work with local activists in developing better cycling and pedestrian infrastructure for residents and to attract visitors and more tourism dollars.

In addition to Fowler, Kate Kraft, coalition director for America Walks, and Jim Sayer, executive director of the Adventure Cycling Association worked with local community and government leaders on how to use biking and walking resources to drive economic growth. The group will speak with Chattanooga Mayor Ande Berke, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and other leaders this morning to present recommendations.

Jim Johnson, president of local bicycle tourism company BikeToursDirect, used his contacts to bring the three national leaders together and worked with Outdoor Chattanooga to develop an agenda to connect them with local activists.

"My company has been involved with Adventure Cycling for a number of years and we're one of the larger corporate sponsors," he said. "And I've been a member of Rails-to-Trails for probably 20 years, so I've been very familiar with the organizations."

Kraft emphasized the important health benefits of walking as the simplest and most accessible form of exercise that can prevent obesity and other chronic diseases, and she encouraged the development of more walking-friendly street design such as the Complete Streets initiative that Chattanooga's Transportation Department is implementing.

Sayer's organization, based in Missoula, Mont., works as an advocacy group for bike tourism around the world, and he emphasized the important economic benefits of developing bicycle travel resources.

"Active and adventure travel are the fastest-growing components of the overall tourism market in the world," he said. "The U.S. travel market is a $2 trillion industry, so you as economic development or tourism officials can make a huge difference in tapping into that market."

Contact Jim Tanner at jtanner@timesfreepress.com.