Legislation has been introduced that would partially reverse the state law that prohibits local governments from using condemnation in order to build bike and pedestrian facilities.
In the current state budget, passed last fall, the legislature included a provision that prevents all local governments and the state Department of Transportation from using eminent domain when acquiring the right of way for multi-use trails, bike lanes or sidewalks.
The Bike Fed joined by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities and many local jurisdictions fought this budget amendment hard, but it remained and was signed into law by the governor as part of the omnibus 2017-2018 state budget.
Now, Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton) and Rep. Mike Rohrkaste (R-Neenah) have introduced a bill (Senate Bill 794) that would reverse some of that prohibition. Under their bill, municipalities could once again use condemnation to build sidewalks and bike lanes on streets, but not multi-use trails or separated side paths.
At a public hearing this morning we testified in favor of the bill as a good step back in the right direction. But we also called into question the process for adoption of the original language and vowed to continue fighting to reverse the prohibition in its entirety.
First, the process. The language was slipped into the budget literally at the eleventh hour with no debate and without even so much as an author being identified. Our argument is that if there is some problem with condemnation let’s hear about it in a separate bill and see what can be done to address it.
Second, while this bill is a good one, it doesn’t go far enough. Tom Lynch, an engineer who consults for many municipalities, appeared at the hearing and pointed out that the trend is toward side paths or physically separated bike and pedestrian ways. An on street bike lane is a good start, but it doesn’t always provide the protection cyclists need. He also said that disallowing condemnation for these kinds of facilities risks having projects built with federal money rejected by the Federal Highway Administration because the projects won’t comply with rules requiring accommodations for people who bike and walk.
We were joined at the hearing by Lynch and representatives from the League of Municipalities, the Wisconsin Counties Association, Winnebago County, the cities of Madison and Middleton and the Village of Kronenwetter in Marathon County. Everyone testified in favor of the bill, but they also echoed our concern about the process that got us here and our support for legislation that would fully restore municipal powers. No one spoke in opposition to the bill.
But the Bike Fed also took on what seems to be the fundamental argument in favor of eliminating condemnation: that somehow people who ride bikes or walk aren’t important enough to warrant the use of eminent domain. We pointed out that people walk or bike for only two reasons: to get exercise and to get someplace. Both are important public goods. Exercise is important to public health and to fighting an obesity epidemic that is costing us billions of dollars in expensive interventions for everything from diabetes to heart disease to cancer. And when people ride bikes to commute or to do daily errands they put less wear and tear on our roads, which have been called out in numerous studies as some of the worst in the nation.
The next step is for the bill to be reported from committee (it is likely to get unanimous bipartisan approval). From there is goes to the Senate floor and then on to the Assembly. While SB-794 is not likely to be controversial, the legislature is running up against adjournment, so passage all the way through the process in the time left is not certain.
Something you can do is to send an email to Sen. Roth and Rep. Rohrkaste thanking them for their bill and asking them to go even further next session.
They can be reached at Sen.Roth@legis.wisconsin.gov and Rep.Rohrkaste@legis.wisconsin.gov.