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Why LAB Should Move Out of Washington

by Bill Hoffman, LCI #33, LAW/LAB Member since 1971, Life Member since 1976

The “inside the Beltway” culture is insidious to the League.

Since 1997, when LAB headquarters was moved from Baltimore to Washington, DC, the League has increasingly taken on the trappings of a Washington lobbying organization, at the expense of serving the needs of its members.  I believe the League should move its office out of Washington.

Please note that I am NOT recommending abandoning all of the advocacy work LAB has done at the Capitol and with Federal agencies and quasi-governmental groups.  Some of this work has been beneficial.  However, much of the advocacy effort needs to be redirected, but that is another subject.

I was present when the board deliberated on, and voted for, the move to Washington.  The promise made at the time was that the League would continue to offer member services.  That was a sad joke.  The member services quickly disappeared, and with them, two-way communication with members, the very healthy practice of having member volunteers in many capacities, and the League’s careful stewardship of the members’ money.  This is an experiment that has failed by its own criteria.

The “inside the Beltway” culture is insidious to the League.  This culture revolves around schmoozing up politicians to appropriate taxpayer money to benefit someone.  These funds are often called “earmarks” or “set-asides.”  The plain English name is “pork.”

Let’s understand that most decisions that affect where and how we ride are not made in DC, they’re made in state capitols, county seats, and city halls.  These decisions involve how roads, paths, and trails are designed, constructed, and maintained and whether we are allowed to ride on the roads or are confined to less safe facilities, including sidewalks.

The League is overwhelmingly made up of road cyclists, so virtually all our members are affected by these state and local decisions.  Washington’s role is to send money and offer some policy and design standards that states and localities must follow in order to keep the money flowing.  Beyond that, it’s at the state and local levels where the important decisions are made.

LAB was already influencing federal transportation legislation and policies before it moved to DC, and it had some major lobbying successes, beginning with the passage of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act in 1978.  We’ve had a government relations director almost continuously since about 1975.  That person worked either from his/her home or at LAB headquarters.  Earlier on we had a space in a shared office in DC for the days when the government person was in town.  Later, there was a two-person office for the government relations staff.

Our successes (and failures) during the 1975-97 period were at least as good as they’ve been since the whole staff has been in DC.  Examples of these successes include the passage of enhancement legislation, which went far more smoothly in 1991 and 1996 than in subsequent years, and also Alan Greenberg’s (a previous Government Relations Director) status as a personal cycling buddy of Congressman Jim Oberstar.

For more LAB history, see A Brief History of LAB.

The location of HQ has no bearing on our success in advocacy because the League, and cyclists in general, have very little political power.  The best LAB can hope for is to become the “go to” group for expertise in on-road cycling and the types of facilities and amenities that make cycling safer and more convenient.  In legislation involving transportation funding, which is a sizeable line item in the federal budget, the League will have to ally with other organizations to achieve its goals because bicycling is not significantly important in overall transportation planning and funding to stand on its own.

Fortunately, the things road cyclists need–smooth pavement, vehicle detectors at traffic lights that detect bicycles, and sometimes a bit of extra space–don’t cost much, and can be included in other outlays.  In essence, we get a “free ride” because, mostly but not always, good roads for motorists are also good roads for cyclists.  LAB’s position statement on cyclists’ rights even says this–see A Cyclists’ Rights to the Road.

When we lobby for pork, we make ourselves a target for others’ frustrations, as the recent flap with Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters aptly illustrated.  Currently, we have a “lobbying for pork” mentality, where we could and should be more interested in having bicyclist-friendly road designs that don’t shout “special treatment” to others.

I estimate that moving from DC will save LAB at least $200,000 a year in rent, personnel costs, and other office expenses.  The saving could be even greater if volunteers were used to perform some clerical functions.

So, where should HQ be if not in DC?  It needs to be a city with good air service that is served by one or more discount carriers, which bring lower fares across the board to the cities they serve.  It could be either a “second tier” city (for example, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Memphis, or back to Baltimore) or a smaller city near a big one that has good air, and preferably, commuter train service.

Among the latter, Wilmington, DE and Trenton, NJ come to mind.  Both are near Philadelphia, which has good air service and is served by low-cost carriers, both are on Amtrak’s busy Northeast Corridor, and both have train connections to the Philadelphia (and in Trenton’s case, also Newark) airport.  Washington is not too far away for the times when one or more staff members have to go there.  Living costs in these cities are lower than in Washington.

A relocation would probably mean hiring some new staff to the extent that the current staff chooses not to relocate.  Labor costs should be lower in a smaller city because living costs are lower.

A comprehensive study is needed to determine the savings produced by moving out of DC, and where the office should be located.  If elected to the Board, I will propose such a study and volunteer to work on it.

Please join us and help restore the BikeLeague to members.

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