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Cyclists ride down a bike lane on Broad Street on Nov. 10, 2015.

THE BILLS

House Bill 1650 and Senate Bill 1716 would:

› Keep gas tax revenue from being used for the construction of pedestrian and bicycle trails and paths, parks, greenways and similar facilities along public roads with speed limits greater than 35 miles per hour.

› Keep gas tax revenue from being used for a dedicated bicycle lane on new or reconstructed roads with a proposed speed limit of 35 miles per hour or less, unless the work is part of the larger highway improvement project and the bicycle lane serves a transportation purpose supported by an engineering analysis.

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With the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building looming behind, four cyclists turn onto East 10th Street.

Tuesday is shaping up as a big day for a piece of legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly that carries implications reaching beyond the bike lanes in its crosshairs.

House Bill 1650 seeks to gut the ability of the state to use its gas tax revenue on most bicycle and pedestrian projects as some state leaders eye the possibility of Tennessee's first gas tax increase since 1989 to help pay for a backlog of road projects.

It's a bill that House sponsor Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, feels could have an impact on the public perception of a potential gas tax increase. And it's a bill that bicycling advocates across the nation are eyeing anxiously.

"Right now, all eyes are on Tennessee for this legislation," Bike Walk Tennessee Executive Director Matt Farr said. "A lot of national organizations feel that if something like this passes in Tennessee, then it has the potential to pass elsewhere.

"This is a bigger deal than just us. It could have national implications."

The bill is scheduled to be heard in the House Transportation Committee for the first time Tuesday after it passed through the House Transportation Subcommittee recently.

It is also scheduled to be heard in the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday after it received a negative recommendation from a Senate subcommittee on March 1. The Senate sponsor is Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga.

Carter said he is unsure how the subcommittee's negative recommendation will affect the trajectory of the bill.

"If this thing [HB 1650] doesn't pass and next year they run a gas tax bill, how in the devil do you pass the gas tax bill?" he said. "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."

A Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman said in a statement to the Times Free Press last month that approximately 1 percent of TDOT's $1.8 billion annual budget is spent on bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

Of the 44 percent of the state's transportation revenue generated in-state, less than half is generated by the gas tax, according to a 2015 report from the state comptroller's office that cited 2013 statistics.

Still, the amount lost for bicycling improvements would be devastating to the state's developing bicycle transportation infrastructure, bill opponents say.

"What we're hearing from the bill sponsors, Senator Gardenhire especially, is he keeps referring to this funding as being used for recreation, and this is not recreation," Farr said. "It's transportation for thousands of people.

"Typically, a lot of people who are walking or biking to work may not be able to afford a car, so we're really attacking a vulnerable population with this legislation."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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