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Papio-Missouri River NRD headquarters on Chalco Lake. Staff members got to ride the Haibike Xduro electric bike last Spring.
Papio-Missouri River NRD headquarters on Chalco Lake. Staff members got to ride the Haibike Xduro electric bike last Spring.

The Call: Part One of Electric Bicycles and the Papio NRD

When LB 756 failed to reach the floor of Nebraska Unicameral for debate and a vote last Spring, I decided to launch a personal grassroots effort to help build support for an electric bicycle bill, one part of which was to ask the Natural Resources District to amend their policy to allow electric bicycles on their trail system. Last night, the matter finally came to a vote.

I was merrily working away on something related to EV World when the phone rang. It was Jim Thompson. He's a director on the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resource District board. Jim's been helping champion my effort to establish the legal definition of an electric-assist bicycle as a "bicycle" in my home state of Nebraska. The NRD manages a number of flood control lakes around the greater Omaha area. These have been developed into lovely boating (trolling boats and small sailboats) and fishing lakes. Some have RV camping facilities and all have picnic areas. Most are surrounded by paved hiking and biking trails, all of which are clearly marked 'no motorized vehicles allowed.'

The intent, of course, is to keep motorcycles and off-road vehicles like ATVs off these paths where they can endanger walkers and cyclists. Taken literally, however, this can be construed to also prohibit electric-assist bicycles.

This is where I enter the picture.

Some months ago, I proposed to Jim, as well as Eric Williams, an NRD staffer, that an exception be made for electric bicycles. Under the federal Consumer Protection Safety Act (CPSA) of 2002, electric bicycles fall, not under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation and its National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), but under the Consumer Product Safety Commission where they are considered 'bicycles' and not motorized vehicles. To meet this requirement, their electric motors must have a rated output of no more than 750W (1 hp). The motor cannot propel the bike faster than 20 mph, at which point it must immediately disengage and shut off. The bike must also have working pedals.

According to Wikipedia, some 30+ states have accepted this definition and consider them 'bicycles.' My state hasn't yet taken that step, but we came close earlier this year. Working with my state senator Jim Smith and his legislative assistant Lisa Johns, we drafted LB 756, a bill that would modify state statute to recognize federally-compliant electric bicycles as a 'bicycle.' The bill was first submitted to the transportation and telecommunications sub-committee and one cold winter day last February I drove to Lincoln and with Ms. Johns acting as my escort, I rolled a Currie iZip electric bicycle into the capitol building and down to Senator Smith's office, a first for the capital I was told.

Conveniently located across from the hall from the committee hearing room, committee members and their staff came by to look over the bike while I was on hand to answer their questions. When the hearing started, I and several others testified in support of the bill. With no opposition present, the committee agreed to move it on up the legislative ladder, where it ran into a logjam of other pending bills. Time ran out for the 2014 legislative session and the bill never got a hearing, much less a vote. However, Senator Smith generously pledged to reintroduce it. In the meantime, I set out to build grass roots support of it.

One part of that strategy was to see if the local NRD would amend their policy to allow electric bicycles access to their trails. Director Thompson and Mr. Williams were sympathetic and agreed to help. The first NRD subcommittee hearing was in October. There the staff proposed to revise the District's definition of a 'bicycle' to include electric-assist models, using language similar to that in CSPA 2002. I was encouraged to attend and testify, which I did. In proposed revision wasn't a slam dunk, by any means. One thing you learn about local politics, directors don't always see eye-to-eye and board discussion can become fairly strained and intense.

I was grilled by several board members, but in the end, the committee voted in favor of revising the definition. The next step would be an end-of-the year meeting of the entire board of directors, which would take place in December. They would take up the proposed policy changes, including the electric bicycle one.

Which brings me to Jim's call late yesterday afternoon. He was concerned because another director had, unbeknownst to him, surveyed several constituency groups who are active trailer users. The feedback was strongly negative to allowing electric bicycles on the trail system and he suggested that I attend and if the opportunity presented itself, that I again testify. I promised to be at 7PM meeting and since I was responsible for making dinner, I hastily threw together a pot of chili and got myself cleaned up, while also tracking down the Facebook survey Jim had mentioned.

The comments weren't encouraging. As I read through them, my hopes sank. If these folks showed up and testified there was a fair chance the revision would be amended by the board, likely delaying or even killing it.

I started jotting down my own set of bullet points and in the process recalled that more than a year ago, I had interviewed Keith Laughlin, the president of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the D.C.-based non-profit responsible for the construction of some 9,000 miles of walking and biking trails across America. I vaguely recalled him saying he had no problems with e-bikes that met federal standards using the trails. I looked up the interview and found his comment at the 20:00 mark in the MP3 file. Sure enough, he had said that, but to confirm, I emailed him, hoping he would respond before I had to run off to the meeting. He did. He replied that the R2T's view was a 'bit nuanced', but overall, the thrust of his statement remained the same.

I grabbed a bowl of chili with my wife, who'd just arrived home from work, explained why I was headed out the door and can I borrow the Prius? With a kiss and a 'Good Luck', I headed towards Chalco Lake about 5 miles away and headquarters of our NRD offices.

To be continued….

Posted By: Bill Moore [12-Dec-2014]


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