Thanks to the grassroots mobilization of thousands of cyclists and trail users in Spring 2016, legislation that could have had negative repercussions for active transportation around the country officially died with the close of the Tennessee General Assembly’s annual session.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) worked with Bike Walk Tennessee to fight two companion bills in the House and Senate that would have stripped the ability of the state and local communities to use gas tax revenue for non-automobile, non-highway projects, including bike lanes, recreational trails and greenways. (The bill’s initial prohibition on sidewalk funding was removed because of concerns it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.)
The legislation, House Bill (HB) 1650 and Senate Bill (SB) 1716, would have taken away a critical source of funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects in the state—and made it less safe for people to walk or bike to their destinations—while denying cities and counties local control to make decisions regarding their communities’ transportation needs.
The bills’ authors—Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-District 10) and Rep. Mike Carter (R-District 29)—said the bills were put forth in order to be transparent ahead of a proposal to raise the state’s gas tax to fund backlogged transportation maintenance and road projects. However, it’s important to note that only about 1 percent of the state’s current gas tax—which many bicyclists and pedestrians pay into as car owners—is spent on bike/ped projects.
Tennessee residents loudly made their voices heard in opposition. At the first committee hearing, Presiding Chairman Sen. Doug Overbey (R-District 2) noted that SB 1716 was the one “filling up my email inbox.”
The Chattanooga Times Free Press noted, “State Rep. Mike Carter said he had no idea a firestorm would ensue when he filed House Bill 1650 … That firestorm is the largest mobilization of bicycle advocates in state history, according to Bike Walk Tennessee Executive Director Matt Farr.”
Ultimately, RTC and Bike Walk Tennessee worked closely together to mobilize members and supporters to call and email legislators in targeted districts and on key committees, educate legislators, and generate coverage in local television and newspaper outlets across the state, and in national blogs. Bike Walk Tennessee collected more than 3,600 petition signatures against the bills.
Neither the House nor Senate bill made it out of their respective chamber, or even to the floor. The Senate bill got stuck in its original committee. The House bill was ultimately pulled down by Rep. Carter.
More states are considering raising transportation revenues via gas tax increases. All users of the transportation system—whether they drive, walk, bike or take transit—need options and choices that are safe and efficient. Typically, those who pay into the gas tax also walk or bike. RTC was concerned that this type of limiting legislation—if supported—could spread to other states.
RTC is continuing to support Bike Walk Tennessee and efforts to fund active transportation infrastructure. The stymying of these bills underscored the power of grassroots organizing, even in states perceived to be conservative or hostile to biking and walking.