Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Visit to Congress

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- There's nothing like a daylong workout of walking the Spartan halls of Congress, visiting the offices of Florida's 25 House of Representatives members and both of the U.S. Senators who represent the Sunshine State. You better bring your most comfortable walking shoes when you lobby Washington, D.C., because those floors in Congress are as hard as they get.

I was there all day Thursday with my fellow six bicycle advocates from Florida to spread the legislative gospel to Florida's congressmen as part of the 8th National Bike Summit. It was a record crowd of participants for the Summit, which brought together more than 500 of the most ardent bicycle supporters from across the country. They are bicycle coordinators, bike shop owners, bike club presidents, bike equipment company CEOs and municipal planners who climbed Capitol Hill today to pass out pages summarizing proposed pro-bicycle legislation to members of Congress.

I'm attending as director of SWFBUD, the Tampa Bay seven-store bike alliance (South West Florida Bicycle United Dealers). I was lucky enough to attend because I received a grant from the National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA), which paid my travel, lodging and Summit registration expenses. I want to thank SWFBUD member Bill Addler, owner of Revolution Bicycles in St. Petersburg, who brought the bike dealers association grant to my attention, and also SWFBUD member Tom Jessup, owner of Chainwheel Drive in Clearwater and Palm Harbor, who is a board member of the NBDA and informed that organization of SWFBUD's work in the Tampa Bay area.

The Summit was orchestrated by the League of American Bicyclists. The League arranged sessions for us Floridian participants with Sen. Bill Nelson and three House Reps. But that was not good enough for Laura Hallam, executive director of the Florida Bicycle Association, a state-wide bicycle advocacy organization. Laura, who has attended the last seven National Bike Summits, got folders from the League of American Bicyclists for us to drop in on ALL of the other Congressmen from Florida.

I walked miles and miles between the three massive buildings that make up the House offices, and the three buildings where the U.S. senators have their offices. We left the lycra shorts and jersey at home and donned business suits, ties and jackets to play ball with the politicians of Washington. We were a lobby like any other strolling the undecorated halls of Congress and making our pitches. Bicyclists can be a laid-back bunch, but if we want our fair share of the public resource pie, we have to learn to play the lobbyist part and play ball with the politicians just like the automobile, pharmaceutical or tobacco lobbies.

Other Summit participants from Florida besides Laura included Mary Jane Mark, who owns Mack Cycle shop in Miami and her daughter Rachel; Gary Mendenhall, a customer service manager from Miami for bike product distributor J&B; David Henderson, the Florida Bicycle Association president and the bicycle-pedestrian coordinator for the Miami-Dade MPO; and Miriam Gallet, a Jacksonville/North Florida bike club board member.

We went in teams of two, three and four to drop in on Congressmen and see if we could chat with aides with the bicycle issues that the Summit had identified such as getting Congressional members to be in the bike caucus, to acknowledge a resolution that would state bicycling as legitimate transportation; and to adopt a "Complete Street" bill that would require road construction to include bicycling and pedestrian use as essential modes.

We talked mostly with aides, who were polite and appreciated our visits. Some showed more enthusiasm than others, but we enjoyed making the connections and laying the groundwork for hopefully successful passge of bills that would enhance bicycling. Laura's savvy leadership for the Florida delegation at the Summit was great.

I have the business cards of aides of 12 of Florida's 25 Reps and the aide of Sen. Bill Nelson's card. I was hoping to get some time with Kathy Castor, our local Rep for Tampa. She was not available, so I had a pleasant audience of her legislative assistant, Nathan Taylor, who said Castor appreciates bicycling as an important way to get around and to stay healthy.

My goal is to visit our local governments, too. We need to tell our Hillsborough county commissioners to allocate the $11 million necessary to hook the Upper Tampa Bay Trail with the Suncoast Trail.

And we need to tell the Tampa City Council to adopt a policy that would require the city's public works department to stripe a bike lane on any city road that's re-paved, improved or rebuilt.

The Florida bicycle advocate delegation at the National Bike Summit was small when compared to that of California (55) and Colorado (32). But we hustled to spread the message of bicycling to every federal lawmaker representing our state.

We bicyclists were instrumental in starting the movement to pave streets in our country in 1902 -- and we are back at it again in 2008 to reclaim a piece of those streets for safe and effective cycling.

My only suggestion: Join the movement. If you love bicycling, step up.

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