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December 04, 2010

Chaos Theory: Oberstar, Mica, Bike Trails

"Chaos Theory" deals with complex integrated systems and the unexpected, non-trivial macro outcomes of what would be generally considered micro-events. A butterfly in Iran flaps its wings, the monsoon in India lasts a little longer, African textiles are now more competitive, new schools open and literacy improves, and so on.

People in Minnesota voted and an established incumbent is replaced by the challenger. People in Florida decided to keep their incumbent. Across the county, for a thousand different reasons, people choose Red or Blue, and the small changes add up to a switch in the majority in the House of Representatives, which will bring non-trivial changes to many aspects of our lives.

"Transportation Policy" is an uninspired phrase that will never serve as a pickup line, but transportation is a major factor in our modern specialized lives. Probably everything in your house and everything in your pantry comes through the transportation system.

While we'd like to think our economic system is a pastiche of individual enterprises led by Adam Smith's invisible hand, there are in fact people in charge of the transportation structure. People like the Dept. of Transportation, which is a federal agency in the Executive Branch, which is funded and given oversight by Congress. (Boring, I know, but stick with me here, please.)

I've recently written about how the change in "ownership" (a telling concept, that) of the House of Representatives will result in significant changes in terms of river transportation policy. The key under-story is that the replacement of James Oberstar with John Mica as Chairman of the House Transportation Committee will have profound implications for the national transportation system.

Today brings us a message posted on the Montour Trail Yahoo Group from the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy. The message describes the impact that replacing Oberstar with Mica will have on bike trails.

Sent: Wed, December 1, 2010 10:37:35 AM
Subject: [Three-Rivers-Heritage-Trail] A message from Kevin Mills, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Please help RTC stave off dangerous walking and bicycling attacks in the next transportation reauthorization! Encourage your colleagues and friends to visit

As you may imagine, the election results are already having a profound impact on the debate over reauthorization of federal transportation policy.

Decades-long cycling champion and current chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee James Oberstar (D-Minn.) lost his Congressional seat, costing our movement a passionate and knowledgeable transportation leader. As Republicans assume control of the House, John Mica (R-Fla.) is set to become the next committee chair, and Nick Rahall (D-W.V.) will be the ranking member of the committee.

One key argument I expect will gain significant traction in the new Congress will be the idea of a user-fee funded transportation system. In other words, instead of using gas taxes to develop balanced transportation systems that best meet the needs of communities, some seek to turn back the clock decades to a time when gas taxes were limited solely to providing roads and highways for automobiles. If this view takes root, it would effectively eliminate sources of funding for trails, walking and bicycling that have been the lifeblood of our movement. Transit funding also would suffer.

Such a backward-looking mentality was recently advanced by AAA, which is using the credibility of their enormous membership to sway decision-makers to take a position that most of their members find objectionable. To send a message that such an approach is unwise and unacceptable, RTC initiated a campaign asking AAA to join America's transportation future.

This campaign has proven wildly successful, with tens of thousands of Americans from around the country - many of whom are AAA members - calling on AAA National to support continuation of crucial bicycling and walking programs funded by federal gas taxes.

I need your help now. We are preparing to deliver names to AAA of those who have signed the petition. As active transportation leaders in your communities, you likely have access to e-mail lists and networks through which word of our campaign can be spread. We need to maximize the number of petitioners to demonstrate the popularity and importance of continued federal investment in walking and bicycling.

Will you please spread the word by Monday, December 6, to your colleagues, e-mail lists, Facebook and Twitter followers, and ask them to visit

Thank you for your support,

Kevin Mills, Vice President of Policy, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Please consider visiting

I'm intrigued at what all the implications of swapping Oberstar and Mica might be, and how we'll see them locally. Watch out for those butterflies!


kilwer said...

Nothing to it, that was easy.

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