Alice Ollstein

Scott Walker’s Baffling War On Bikes

MADISON, WISCONSIN — In just one year, Wisconsin’s bike friendliness ranking from the non-partisan League of American Bicyclists dropped from the third best in country to ninth. If the state legislature approves Governor Scott Walker’s budget, which slashes funding for bike infrastructure, boosts spending on freeways and imposes a new tax on bicycle sales, the ranking could plummet further.

As Governor Walker prepares for a likely run for the White House, he’s been traveling the country touting his record of slashing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, saying he has “put more money back in the hands of the hardworking taxpayers.”

Yet Governor Walker and his allies in the Madison statehouse have found one corporate sector where they’re willing to raise taxes: bicycles. Though they have been hesitant to consider boosting taxes on gasoline or vehicle registration fees, state lawmakers have been pushing a $25 tax on the sale of all new bicycles in the state, on top of the existing sales tax.

Daily bike commuters, like fourth generation Wisconsinite Brian Ward, told ThinkProgress it feels like an “attack on cycling.”

“When you create barriers to people accessing a bike, it’s a real burden and a disincentive,” he said. “There are a lot of misconceptions about what kind of people bike, and you do have the people who have a lot of money and do it for sport, but you also have people who just need to get to work. It’s not uncommon to go on a trail and see people of all shapes and sizes and types of bikes.”

In addition to floating the new bike tax, the budget currently under consideration would repeal the state’s “Complete Streets” law. The policy, which mandates that all new road construction and repairs take cyclists and pedestrians into consideration, makes up only about $190,000, or six-one-thousandths of one percent of the total transportation budget, according to the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. They are also considering gutting millions of dollars from two additional bike infrastructure efforts: the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, which provides matching grants for creating and maintaining trails, and Transportation Alternatives, which funds the creation of routes for children to safely bike to school, among other initiatives.

Ward, who works for Trek Bicycles’ flagship store in Madison, Wisconsin, said he’s concerned these changes would people more afraid to ride in the state, and has already heard many complaints from customers.

“If there’s not infrastructure to protect folks from accidents or interactions with cars, you’re going to make people nervous and not want to ride. You’re creating an unsafe environment,” he said. “Plus, the whole debate is just promoting the false narrative of bikes versus cars, when they aren’t mutually exclusive. The safety of people in cars doesn’t have to come at the expense of bikers. In fact, when there are bike lanes, it helps everyone because the bikes aren’t frustrating the cars by being in traffic.”

Meanwhile, state legislators have moved to increase funding for car infrastructure, such as budgeting $146 million to add more lanes to Highway 23. A federal court recently ruled the state’s Department of Transportation relied on inaccurate, inflated traffic predictions to justify that project. The Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee is also facing criticism for earmarking $200 million dollars for a brand new Transportation Department headquarters.

Madison one of the highest rates of bicycle commuting in the country, with more than 5 percent of the city riding to work. This has only grown as the city has created safer infrastructure, such as wide, separated paths that run alongside the lake and the railroad tracks, stretching as far as the eye can see in both directions. These trails are so popular that the city has to plow snow off of them in the winter because people use them year-round. Many of the tens of thousands of students at the flagship University of Wisconsin-Madison use two wheels to get around campus and town.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi told ThinkProgress that when he held 50 public meetings through the county over the past year, the number-one request from the public was more cycling infrastructure. “They want to bike, and they want to bike safely,” he said. “So it makes people healthier because it promotes biking, it cuts down on greenhouse gases, and it really helps our quality of life. And, if there are fewer people in cars, it cuts down on the infrastructure needed for cars, so it ultimately saves us dollars.”

Parisi added that even die-hard motorists should appreciate the economic and employment value of promoting cycling in Wisconsin, due to the presence of many local bike companies including Trek, Schwinn, and Saris, a company that makes bike racks.

“They manufacture those right here in Dane County. We’re talking good old fashioned, made in the USA,” said Parisi. “Not to mention all the bike shops, and the national bike races and Ironman races that come to Dane County because of the facilities and the biking economy we have here.”

He is baffled, then, that Governor Walker and his allies in the statehouse have singled out cycling for additional budget cuts and taxes.

“You’re not saving money by encouraging more people to get in cars,” he said. “It’s almost like they’re picking on people they don’t like, or picking on Dane County and things that work well in Dane County.”

Other local advocates have speculated that the move is retaliation against Trek Bicycles executive Mary Burke, who ran unsuccessfully against Governor Walker in 2014.

But Ward and other local bicyclists see it as a continuation of the Governor’s dismissal of the threat of climate change and his transportation priorities, noting that he also rejected federal funding for a train from Madison to Milwaukee.

“Walker’s values are very clear,” he said. “He wants to only create infrastructure for cars.”

The League of American Bicyclists predicts that if Governor Walker’s budget passes in the coming weeks, “bicycling in Wisconsin will be set back significantly and it may take years to recover.”

Parisi has an even more sober forecast. “If we take away these options, folks are still going to be out there riding, but it’s going to be more dangerous and there will be more fatalities, more tragedies,” he said.

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