At some point in the final negotiations to fund transportation in Minnesota in the legislative session, Republican leaders in the Senate made it known that they wanted all references to bicycles removed from the bill.
“Well, not all the language,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, the Minneapolis Democrat who, as chairman of the House Transportation Committee, was present for the negotiations. “But most of it.”
Much of the problematic bicycle language originated with Rep. Connie Bernardy, D-New Brighton. Her bill, which passed the House, went so far as to tweak the definition of a “bikeway”; more precisely define the rights and responsibilities of cyclists legally riding in crosswalks and sidewalks; and expand the definition of a car’s “safe clearance distance while passing” from the current 3 feet minimum to “or one-half the width of the motor vehicle, whichever is greater.”
Just how controversial was this language in the House?
“It passed with tri-partisan support — 122-0!” said Bernardy. “I was surprised what happened with the Senate.”
Other language offended the Republicans, including provisions that required that at least 10% of transportation projects’ budgets be set aside for trails, bicycle and pedestrian facilities; that a bike rider overtaking another bike or person on a bikeway must “give an audible signal a safe distance prior to overtaking a bicycle or individual,” thus enshrining “On your left!” into state law; and that riders be allowed to approach an intersection in “the leftmost one-third of a dedicated right-hand turn lane without turning right,” to allow people on bikes to be out of the lanes of traffic.
Hornstein said his Republican colleagues did not offer detailed policy objections to those provisions. But he has detected a pattern in their negotiations.
“Clearly,” Hornstein said, “they have a hostility to the bicycle as a mode of transportation. I don’t understand it.”
Much of this alleged hostility would appear to be coming from Sen. Scott Newman, the Republican from Hutchinson who heads up the Senate Transportation Committee. He did not return phone calls seeking his philosophy on bicycles, bike lanes, or bike safety.
It was probably not a coincidence, however, that Newman was the author of a bill this session that would have specifically prohibited the state Department of Transportation (MnDOT) from “spending any money from the trunk highway fund on creating, constructing, expanding, marking, or maintaining bicycle lanes.” MnDOT testified against Newman’s bill, pointing out that it would force it to violate its “mission of operating a safe, accessible and reliable multimodal system possible, which includes options for people traveling by bike.”
Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, has also noted “considerable hostility toward bicycles among Republican senators,” which he ascribes to a philosophy that views transportation policy as a “zero-sum” game in which “urban class folks” are somehow hogging budgets.
“There is a false sense of unfairness out there,” Dibble said. “Bikes get caught up in that. I also think it is part of an effort to divide our state for electoral advantage.”
Dorian Grilley, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, views the losses as short-term because the Senate Republicans are misreading voters’ mood. “This drives me crazy,” Grilley said. “Their constituents are into bicycles. Senator Newman’s constituents are into this. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Bernardy said she, too, was puzzled by the rejection of the bike laws, although she heard around the Capitol that some Senate Republicans thought her legislation was too controversial (even though it passed 122-0 in the House) and that the Senate hadn’t heard the bills in committee (even though the Senate had in the previous session passed many of the bike bills).
“I sincerely wish he [Newman] would be concerned about the safety of people on bikes,” said Bernardy. “But I am staying positive. I want to work with Senator Newman in the next session to make this happen.”
Two bicycle-related bills did survive the session. One provided $1 million for the Safe Routes to School program. The federal Department of Transportation says more than 10% of rush-hour car trips go to schools. The Safe Routes program is trying to make it safer and more common for kids to walk and bike to school.
Another survivor is $5 million in federal money for planning to advance “active transportation” in Minnesota, a category that covers both biking and walking.
“So it wasn’t completely nothing,” as Dibble said.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. His column appears twice a month. Reach him at email@example.com.
Read archived columns at startribune.com/bikeguy.