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Bike Texas

Houston considers a “Safe Passing” ordinance

Glad to hear it.

Though it boasts a growing biking culture, Houston is the only major city in Texas without a safe-passing law requiring motorists to share the road with cyclists and others. City leaders now want to change that.

City attorneys proposed an ordinance to the City Council’s public safety committee Wednesday that officials said should come up for a vote soon. Bike advocates cheered the proposal, but said they hope it will be amended to more closely mirror a model ordinance, drafted by Austin-based nonprofit BikeTexas, that is working its way through the Legislature.

Fourteen other Texas cities, most using BikeTexas’ proposal, have approved safe-passing laws since Gov. Rick Perry’s 2009 veto of a bill that would have required drivers to keep a minimum distance from cyclists. Nationwide, 39 states have adopted safe passing laws.

Robin Stallings, executive director of BikeTexas, said making safe-passing laws as uniform as possible will improve efforts to educate drivers about the need to share the road. The model ordinance, he added, has been picked over by scores of lawmakers and has solid compromises built in.

“This is important so that they pass the state law,” Stallings said of Houston’s efforts. “It’s an educational tool and very valuable, as an ordinance, to begin that process of education, but it’s going to be more effective once it’s more universal.”

Houston’s proposal would require drivers to give bicyclists at least 3 feet of space when passing and 6 feet when trailing, and would require them to change lanes to give cyclists more room, where possible. Violators could be fined up to $500.

The ordinance also would protect pedestrians, runners, stranded motorists, construction workers, tow truck operators, riders on horseback and other “vulnerable” road users.

This subject came up in February, and at that time there was no apparent interest in a Houston ordinance. I supported this in 2009 when a bill that Rick Perry ultimately vetoed was passed by the Legislature, and I support it now. There are some issues that need to be worked out before the Houston ordinance comes up for a vote in Council, so if you have any feedback I recommend you contact the office of CM Ed Gonzalez, who is the Chair of the Public Safety committee, which is working on this. A lot of bicyclist are killed or injured every year in preventable accidents. Laws like this can help reduce that number.

How about a local safe passing law?

Man, I’d forgotten about this.

After Gov. Rick Perry’s veto in 2009 blocked a statewide law requiring drivers to keep a minimum distance from cyclists on the road, 13 cities approved a model safe-passing law developed by cycling advocates. Dallas passed a similar measure.

The local ordinances require drivers to give bicyclists at least 3 feet of space, or 6 feet for drivers of commercial vehicles.

Supporters say the laws provide a useful tool to encourage safer driving and make more people aware cyclists have a right to the road. Though supporters said citations are rare, violation of the safe-passing laws is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $200.

“I think we figured out a long time ago we need traffic laws to make people behave,” said Robin Stallings, executive director of BikeTexas, a state cycling advocacy group.

Nearly every major Texas city other than Houston has adopted a safe-passing law. In Austin and San Antonio, police officials are big supporters, and they schedule special enforcement events to make drivers aware of the law and encourage road sharing.

Stallings compared the need for safe-passing laws to Texas’ “move-over” law, which requires drivers to give emergency vehicles parked on roads a buffer to increase safety.

“It makes sense for emergency workers, so it ought to make sense for our children and seniors and mothers and fathers on bicycles,” Stallings said.

But despite interest from local cyclists, Stallings said he was not aware of anyone asking Houston officials to pass a safe driving law.

See here for some background. We’ve been preoccupied with other transportation issues around here, and if a version of the Safe Passing bill came up again in 2011, it couldn’t break through the blood lust for budget cuts for attention. As the story notes, Houston does have a lot of great off-road options for bike transportation, which may make this a lower priority for us. Stallings says that another bill will come up this year, so we’ll see what happens. If it fails again it may be time to consider a local approach, and a contested Mayoral race ought to afford the opportunity for interested parties to push for a commitment to action.

One form of federal funding Texas has not rejected

Funding for bike trails is still welcome in the state.

As you may know, under the new federal transportation bill, MAP-21, bicycle and pedestrian projects now have more competition for less money than was available under previous transportation laws. The new bill also gives state officials more latitude in designating funds, and– most importantly– in deciding whether some funds are distributed to alternative transportation at all.

BikeTexas is happy to report that Texas did not opt out of Recreational Trails funding!

While rumors suggested that Texas would opt out of the program as allowed by the new transportation bill, and many national groups urged grassroots action, BikeTexas engaged in weeks of diplomatic communication with TxDOT, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and the Governor’s office. We received word a few days before the deadline that Texas is keeping the Recreational Trails money provided in the new federal transportation bill.

See here and here for the background. I don’t know how they did it, but I can think of a few other issues I’d like them to lobby for. Well done.

Balancing the budget on the backs of charities

Just another “accounting trick” from our Republican legislature.

Each year, more than 100 organizations — including the University of Texas, the Texas Commission on the Arts, the Special Olympics and the Girl Scouts — earn a collective $2.5 million from specialty plates voluntarily purchased by drivers. The $30 plates earn $22 for nonprofits or state agencies, $7.50 goes to the state highway fund, and 50 cents goes to the county in which the vehicle is registered.

Now that money is at risk. In the main budget bill legislators passed last month, officials decided to defer payment on half the money organizations receive through the plates for the next two years. Nonprofits would get $11 per sale. The rest of their money could not be accessed until September 2013 .

The idea is to, in effect, turn that revenue into state income, which helps balance the budget, said Robin Stallings, executive director of BikeTexas , which has taken the lead on fighting the proposal and received $330,000 from the fund in 2010.

Nonprofits say the deferred payments will hurt them because they use that money to operate programs and leverage other sources of income, such as federal grants. They also worry that the state could come back in two years and pass another bill directing that money somewhere else.

“Nobody’s taking much comfort in that we’re supposed to get that money in two years,” Stallings said. “The longer it sits there, the more attractive it becomes for the state to want to keep it for some other purpose.”

This is not a new development, by the way. Rep. Geanie Morrison has filed an amendment that would prevent this from happening, so it’s not set in stone yet. There’s nothing particularly unusual about this kind of budget prestidigitation – just ask Rep. Sylvester Turner about the System Benefit Fund, and watch the smoke come out of his ears. Still, this is the sort of thing you should expect when the very idea of raising revenue is anathema. My advice would be to put off getting that “Animal Friendly” license plate till 2013, when the money you spend on it will again go to the cause behind it. We hope, anyway.