Trails Aren’t as Important as Roads

By Pam Dzama: Community Columnist for the Kitsap Sun

Suppose 150 years ago that those living in Philadelphia who sought a new life west of the Mississippi had left their comfortable abodes on bicycles instead of in wagons.

Would they have crossed the plains of Kansas or the Rocky Mountains or even ventured very far from their homes? Probably not. Without their journey in the best mode of transportation available to them at the time, what would America look like today, not to mention our small county on the Kitsap peninsula?

This column is not about the merits of American pioneers displacing indigenous groups already occupying the West. Nor is it about the value of one way of life over another. Rather, it’s about mobility and freedom.

That rugged spirit of individualism drove those early residents of cities east of the Mississippi to try something different. That sense of adventure and the freedom of choice to act on their dreams ended up developing a vast new nation which would eventually become the most powerful one on earth. It’s still a beacon attracting immigrants from every corner of the world.

The ability to move people and goods from place to place drives economic activity. With the advent of the automobile and the freedom it provides, employees were able to work in one area while living in another. By the mid-20th century industrialized cities weren’t very appealing to families with young children and the suburbs flourished. Interstate and intrastate highways were created to accommodate the growth of the economy. At the time all of this was considered the culmination of the “American Dream.”

Now that definition of the “American Dream” is being questioned. Suburbs are ridiculed as creating dreaded “sprawl.” Too much supporting infrastructure damaged the environment, or so the argument goes. We’re supposed to return to smaller, intact communities where people not only work, but live. The buzz words are “sustainable” and “livable.” Smart Growth is the answer and trails and bicycles are part of the vision.

I have absolutely nothing against hiking trails or bicycling. Both activities are healthy alternatives to lounging around watching television or playing video games. But they should be someone’s choice, not some governmental mandate which requires taxpayers’ funding.

But that’s not the thinking of the Obama administration and his transportation secretary, who believe biking and walking are as important as automobiles when it comes to transportation planning and federal funding of projects. Of course, biking represents only about 1 percent of trips taken by Americans, but no matter. Last year the federal government doubled spending to $1.2 billion on biking and walking schemes. Those are your tax dollars at work.

The Puget Sound Regional Council is responsible for distributing federal transportation dollars, 10 percent of which must go to non-motorized projects. Almost $20 million is dedicated to those projects, of which Kitsap County should get about $1.2 million.

Last year, the Kitsap Regional Coordinating Council requested an ad-hoc group help them prioritize non-motorized projects in the county. In June the “trails” committee recommended that Kitsap County double what it spends on pedestrians and cycling, focusing on safe routes to schools and shoreline trails. Poulsbo’s mayor predicted a 100 percent increase wouldn’t happen but 10 to 20 percent was more likely.

Any increase would necessarily come from Kitsap’s road infrastructure funding. As I watch our local roads get patched as opposed to resurfaced, it’ll be a hard sell. Our gas taxes fund the transportation budget and are supposed to support those potholed roads.

Why not increase taxes on walking shoes and bicycle tires to finance trails and bicycle paths and designate those funds as “user fees”? I know this is a silly idea — but it’s no more absurd than diverting needed funds for roadways to other less essential uses.

As Port Orchard’s mayor said, “We like trails and we’ll build all that we can afford.” Given the current financial situation at all levels of government spending precious tax dollars on increasing trails and bike usage are hardly pressing matters.

The economic vitality and future growth of the country, state and county is dependent on having a reliable infrastructure of roadways to allow the transportation of goods and services. Even “green” cars need roads. Starving our highways and roadways for funding in hopes of coercing people out of their cars will ultimately backfire. Unless we revert to a society of self-contained local cottage industries, we need to adequately provide for our transportation infrastructure.

Walking trails and bike paths can wait for more affluent times when our budgets are balanced.

 Editors Note: The Kitsap Sun gave KAPO permission to use this article on our Blog.

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