A bill in the Tennessee General Assembly that could hinder a key funding source in the development of the state's bike and pedestrian infrastructure narrowly passed the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday in Nashville.
The committee voted 8-6 in favor of House Bill 1650, despite the impassioned pleas of bicycling advocates who made their case before the panel.
The bill, which would greatly restrict the use of gas tax revenue in the development of bicycle lanes, also was addressed by the Senate Finance, Ways and Means committee on Tuesday.
That committee chose to roll the bill another week to give its members ample time to evaluate the bill, which came with a negative recommendation from a Senate subcommittee.
"I am here to urge you today to heed the recommendation of your colleagues and oppose this dangerous legislation," Bike Walk Tennessee President Anthony Siracusa told the Senate committee. "We here in Tennessee will soon have the unenviable task of deciding whether to raise the state gas tax, and my primary point here today is that this issue of how we fund biking and walking in our great state should be part of this larger discussion of transportation in Tennessee, and not dealt with piecemeal in a small, single bill."
Senate sponsor Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, attributed the bill's negative recommendation to himself for not properly articulating its purpose to the subcommittee two weeks before.
Hours later, Siracusa and Bike Walk Tennessee executive director Matt Farr sat before the House transportation committee to again make a case against the legislation.
They were met with an aggressive defense of the bill by several committee members before the bill ultimately advanced to the finance committee, which House sponsor Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, has said will be a formality since an amended version of the bill has no fiscal note.
The bill would need to advance through the committee stages in both the House and Senate, be passed on the House and Senate floors and be signed by Gov. Bill Haslam before it would become law.
The debate over funding of bicycle and pedestrian projects using gas tax revenue comes as the state grapples with the looming possibility of increasing the gas for the first time since 1989 to help pay for a backlog of road projects.
Tennessee Department of Transportation chief engineer Paul Degges spoke in both meetings, explaining that even the department's annual $10 million multimodal access fund has been going to transportation projects, not recreation projects.
That fund, which he said is not being continued in TDOT's 2017 budget, has primarily funded sidewalk projects across the state for the last three years, while also sending less than $2 million to support bicycle projects, Degges said.
Carter and Gardenhire repeatedly referred to the infrastructure in question as "bike trails" or "bike paths." However, it is bike lanes that are primarily in question.
A bike lane is a separate lane, generally four feet wide, that runs parallel with a road for bicycle use.
Downtown Chattanooga's Broad Street bike lanes are a local example.
The current version of the bill would still allow for gas tax revenue to fund bike lanes on new or reconstructed roads with a speed limit of 35 miles per hour or less, like Broad Street, provided that an engineering analysis supports that the bike lane would serve a transportation purpose.
But it would prohibit gas tax revenue from funding for non-vehicular facilities on roads with speed limits of 35 miles an hour or greater, with the exception of sidewalks.
It's those streets, Farr said, where there is the greatest need for bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure.
"Those are the roads that are most dangerous for bicyclists and pedestrians," Farr said.
Contact staff writer David Cobb at email@example.com or 423-757-6249.