U.S. Interstate Bike Routes Bolstered...As Highways Neglected?

June 20, 2011
bike route (USBRS) sign

bike route (USBRS) sign

You've probably heard of I-5, I-80, or I-95, the legendary U.S. 66 or the still-useful U.S. 2. But what about USBR 20?

It's been 55 years since the Interstate highway system was initiated by President Eisenhower. And while that system might be crumbling and ill-maintained in some respects, there's another one just starting to spring up with a little assistance from the federal government: the U.S. Bicycle Route System.

The USBR network isn't only a few disjointed bike paths that you need to drive out to; there's indeed a master plan, and it will connect urban, suburban, and rural areas and aims to provide real transportation out from urban and suburban areas to rural recreation areas, and even facilitate long-distance trips.

Federal highway safety funds are helping build the network, with about one percent of the annual total going to bike-related projects—these bike highways included.

Even though bike advocates argue that the money goes a long way toward reducing bike-related fatalities, some might cry foul, arguing that the money might be better spent on general road maintenance than on weekend recreation, or a few eco-weenies. A report last year, done in part by the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHTO)—the same group that's helped oversee the bicycle network's formation over several decades—found that potholes are costing an average of $335 per motorist, nationally, and due in part to a "perverse incentives" system, states find it easier to fund total highway replacement from neglect than they do the maintenance that costs a fraction of that. However, not everyone agrees that our highways are crumbling away.

Many of these routes, in fact, are rather low cost rails-to-trails projects—when abandoned railbeds are paved over and made into bike freeways, essentially.

USBR 20 (Michigan bike highway)

USBR 20 (Michigan bike highway)

Over the past year, six new routes have been added to the system—affecting Maine, New Hampshire, Michigan, and Alaska. One of those new bike highways is USBR 20, criss-crossing Michigan's lower peninsula from Ludington to Marine City.

According to the Department of Transportation, the new network will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and generate economic activity. One other big advantage: Bike paths don't cost much at all, yet they bring commerce and tourism to struggling small towns that might have long ago been skipped by the Interstates.

Not everything connects up quite yet. But when gas stations run dry and these become the new superhighways, don't say we weren't prepared.

[DOT FastLane Blog]

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