johnson street

Lines painted for the bike lane along East Johnson Street are part of the upgraded street.

Bike advocates are fuming at a possible state budget measure to impose a $25 tax on new bikes.

"The irony is the Republicans have been looking for ways to cut taxes on business," said Dave Cieslewicz, executive director of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin. "But for some reason they’ve singled out the bike industry as the one industry they want to tax."

The measure showed up in a May 19 Legislative Fiscal Bureau paper on the repeal of the "complete streets" program, included in Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal. Complete streets requires that bike and pedestrian uses be figured into transportation projects. 

The budget projected savings of $3.7 million a year if the program were repealed. But the Fiscal Bureau estimated that the repeal would save $190,500 a year.

The paper offered up the bike registration fee, which would be collected from bike sellers and deposited into the state transportation fund, as a means to fund the program. The Fiscal Bureau estimated that the fee would generate $7.2 million over two years.

The proposed repeal of the 2009 complete streets law was widely seen as a swipe at bikers and is credited with contributing to Wisconsin's bike friendly rating slipping from second to ninth in the annual League of American Bicyclists rankings.

Cieslewicz said the proposed bike tax "points to a larger cultural issue."

"I think the reason these anti-bike policies are being proposed is it’s a red-meat issue for a lot of Republicans," he said. "They have stereotypes about what cyclists are and they don’t see them as their voters. They see attacks on cycling as politically beneficial."

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He added that the measure could put a dent in the state's bike industry, which generates $1.5 billion annually and supports 14,000 jobs.

State Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, a co-chair of the legislative Joint Finance Committee, requested that the Department of Transporation explore what other states have done to exact costs of biking infrastructure from bicyclists. The DOT cited proposals in Washington and Oregon to impose taxes of between $5 and $25 on bicycle sales. 

The Washington proposal generated media attention in 2013 when Republican state Rep. Ed Orcutt defended the proposal in an email to a bike vendor saying that bicyclists pollute the environment by emitting elevated levels of carbon dioxide.

"That means the act of riding a bike results in greater emissions of carbon dioxide from the rider," he wrote. "Since CO2 is deemed to be a greenhouse gas and a pollutant, bicyclists are actually polluting when they ride."

Staffers in Nygren's office said he was unavailable for comment on Wednesday. It's not clear if the bike tax will be included in the final Transportation Department budget, which the budget committee is expected to take up next week.

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.