What’s Lost When Transportation Enhancements Becomes “CMAQ-AA”?

This month’s bipartisan deal on the MAP-21 transportation bill in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hinged on a compromise to make major changes to the popular and successful Transportation Enhancements (TE) program, which primarily funds projects for biking and walking. The final deal eliminates dedicated funding for TE, instead making a smaller amount of money available for funding bike/ped — and a host of other activities –under the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program’s “Additional Activities” category (CMAQ-AA).

The Cherry Creek trail running from downtown Denver 40 miles out to the suburbs was partially funded by TE grants. Photo: ##http://images.enhancements.org/1-Ped-Bike-Facilities/Cherry-Creek-TrailDenver-CO/9485744_VDm6Mn#636862678_EsYgz##National Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse##

TE, which previously received a dedicated 10 percent cut of all Surface Transportation Program funds ($878 million in 2010), will now be competing with Safe Routes to School and the Recreational Trails Program (the other major pots of previously dedicated bike/ped funding) as part of CMAQ-AA, which will be funded at TE’s 2009 level of $833 million. (Note that although TE received 10 percent of all STP funds, it constituted less than two percent of the entire federal transportation program.)

In an even more dramatic shift, bike/ped-averse state governments will be able to opt out of CMAQ-AA altogether. The chart below, which distills a document published by America Bikes [PDF], illustrates the changes, project type by project type:

Running CMAQ Up the Flagpole…

Under the new system, most bicycle and pedestrian projects are still eligible for TE funds. What’s noteworthy are the other categories of projects that are now eligible, or not. Transportation museums are thrown out of the program, while eligibility is expanded for landscaping, environmental mitigation, and scenic and historic bridges. It’s some of those expansions that worry Jesse Prentice-Dunn of the Sierra Club, who told Streetsblog that projects like wetlands management—while obviously important as a matter of environmental stewardship—could squeeze out some bicycle and pedestrian projects. However, he applauds the last-minute decision to remove HOV lanes, another expensive category of projects, from eligibility under CMAQ.

“Overall, we really want this bill to construct a planning and funding process that enables projects to advance on their merit, particularly, in our opinion, [projects] that can reduce dependence on oil,” said Prentice-Dunn. “This bill can be a way to break that addiction.”

Still, he cautioned that any new transportation bill will need to be assessed on the basis of two things. First, funds should continue to be dedicated—or at least reliably disbursed—to non-motorized transportation projects, given the historical bias favoring automobiles. Second, project selection criteria should be altered in order to ensure that non-motorized projects have a shot even without dedicated funding from programs like TE. The changes in the Senate bill, then, signify a step backwards on dedicated funding. There’s no indication that other aspects of the bill would compensate for that setback by establishing criteria that reward investment in active transportation.

…But Who Will Salute?

What would these changes mean for bike/ped projects on the ground or in planning stages? Price Armstrong, program manager for MassBike in Boston, says he can’t overstate how important TE funding has been. Armstrong points out that Massachusetts, ranked ninth among states for bike-friendliness by the League of American Bicyclists, is one of the few states to have adopted a statewide Complete Streets policy. However, the progress in Massachusetts was not accomplished in a vacuum:

Massachusetts has made a lot of progress just over the past five years, partially on its own but significantly thanks to the federal contribution to its bike/ped projects through TE, CMAQ, and Recreational Trails Program dollars. In a cash-strapped environment, even in a bike-friendly state, active transportation projects are the first to get shelved. Since the [U.S.] Senate, which is controlled (barely) by more bike-friendly Democrats, proposed a 20-30 percent reduction in funding, an opt-out clause for states, and increased the competition for the funding, we are extremely concerned.

Armstrong specifically cited the Bay State Greenway as one project currently underway that could suffer substantial setbacks as a result of the changes to TE. Such difficulties are likely to beset the larger projects first, according to Dr. Joseph Hacker, the manager of Transit, Bicycle, and Pedestrian planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission in Philadelphia: “The scale of projects may shift from desire lines on maps [i.e. sweeping statewide visions] to more local initiatives… Advocacy is going to have to change to projects which are possible rather than big picture ‘bicycle highway’ planning.”

Hacker added that while some states may opt to flex all their funds to road projects (Montana or North Dakota), and some metropolitan areas with nascent bike movements could be drowned out by rural interests at the state level (Georgia or Pennsylvania), other states might devote their full share to bicycle funding (Colorado or California).

“A stronger local case is going to have to be made regarding the benefits of new bike/ped projects in order to garner funding,” Hacker said.

The Storm Before The Calm?

The aversion of many states to funding active transportation only makes the job of implementing bike/ped projects that much harder. As one possible immediate adjustment, the League of American Bicyclists’ Darren Flusche suggests, “Advocates should be getting DOTs to fund as many of these projects as possible, as soon as possible, because we still don’t know what the future holds.”

The “increased flexibility” touted by the authors of the Senate bill essentially gives states an easy way to “opt out” of the program. The new provision allows states to drag their feet on spending the money, only to be rewarded for their tardiness by not having to use those funds for their intended purposes. “This could really set the clock back on all of the progress towards a more bicycle-friendly America we’ve made in the past 20 years,” said Flusche.

Flusche says that his organization and others like it will keep the pressure on Congress in the meantime. Their aim will be to convince lawmakers of the value and importance of protecting active transportation projects before MAP-21 becomes the law of the land. Afterward, advocates will shift their focus from Congress to states and local governments, as Flusche and Dr. Hacker predict, with many implications yet unknown.

  • Eric B

    The writing is on the wall about dedicated funding set-asides.  Advocates would be wise to focus on the decision-making projects so that decisions are made at a level that is receptive to bicycle projects.  State DOTs have a number of structural impediments to becoming bike-friendly: they manage networks of statewide highways, measure effectiveness in traffic volumes, serve long-haul travel, etc.  They are unlikely to become livability leaders in our lifetime.  But, cities and Metropolitan Planning Organizations are a playing field on which bike/ped/transit advocates can win.  Local and regional governments care about their citizens’ quality of life and focus on everyday transportation.

    There should be bipartisan receptiveness to pushing decision-making down to as local a level as possible.  Bypass state DOTs, engage local planners, and establish criteria that make bike-ped projects competitive.  Local control is a winning formula for transportation policy.

  • Anonymous

    I agree, Eric. Local, regional, or state planning is really the best way to go in my opinion.

  • Tony D

    Well at the known level of risk I take in raising the ire of so many I must lend my 2 cents worth. 
     
    Active transportation funding  is a problem.   Active transportation is a key word that we watch for when we find the Nationally-based, Federal highway-funded  RAILS TO TRAILS CONSERVANCY making plans to discontinue more railway corridors for use as recreational trails.  Please, before you launch the familiar attacks, spend some time on the history of this group.  They may have changed their name to rails with trails, but the intent and outcomes are the same – loss of valuable railway corridors. 
     
    TRT was organized around the same legislative era when the railroads were being shut down as American transportation was completing its transformation to the single-occupancy automobile and nearing the end of a era of the most successful transportation system in the world.  I won’t spend a lot of time here, but from 1946 to 1976 the auto/roads pavement succeeded.  Passenger rail transportation was considered a waste of money and an interference for the freight rail operators who were also losing market share to the subsidized road system.  Fear of losing railway corridors to abutters led the Federal government to pass legislation to protect the corridors.   Enter the RTT group, funded through highway fuel taxes stepping into the picture under the assumption that they would provide “Interim use of the rails” as recreation trails until such time as rail could re-emerge. 
     
    Their track record, if you will, has been very successful.  Thousands of miles of rail corridors have been converted to trails and less than 1% has been converted back.  Once they are in, their is no way to get them out.  One might suggest that the corridors should be shared.  The greatest engineering feat of the 19th and 20th century designed around a transportation system that was moving thousands of people IN BOTH DIRECTIONS at over 100 miles per hour (yes 100 years ago passenger rail was traveling that fast and faster).  Note “both directions”.  Now transportation planners believe that the corridor is wide enough for joggers and bikes and pushing baby carriages alongside 100 mile an hour trains.  But not only is that unrealistic, but in order for commuter rail to work, as rail was originally designed, trains must operate in both directions – there is no  room for non-motorized uses.  (oh yes, but when you Google design for Rails WITH Trails all the links point to successful systems – all in manuals written by the RTTC and funded with highway dollars) It just ain’t so.
     
    The “argument” these days is about our health.  But the real debate should be the economic impact.  We must consider transportation and the economic malaise we are in in the same policy breath.  Roads and cars have not only destroyed the economy, but they are the cause of our poor health and environment.  A rail will not only bring great economic opportunity to raise us from this depressed economy, but our environment will improve. Besides, there are plenty of places to jog and bike that are not in railroad corridors!
     
    Before we make policy and finding decisions on such things as trails, or funding organizations that convert railway corridors to recreational trails we need an EIA.  Not just an Environmental Impact Analysis (which is one of the costliest burdens of rail investments) but an ECONOMIC IMPACT ANALYSIS.  if one were to analyze the return of taxpayer investment on a trail verses railway, the economic impact is significant – and not at all in the favor of trails.  The idea that recreational trials brings tourism and economic impact to towns along the route is BS.  In maine, where the rail/trail is paved at a cost of $Two  Million Dollars a mile, the towns along the way are left with the responsibility of on-going maintenance, and in the winter no users except for lazy, trail and rail destroying oil using snowmobiles who can be elsewhere ( I wasn’t showing any prejudice there was I?). 
     
    I have to go to work, of which there is not much of these days.
     
    Think hard about “Active Transportation”.  Is it just one more way for the anti-rail contingent to kill the best solution to our oil crisis?  or is it good for our health as we lose our homes?
     
    Tony Donovan
     
    Train Time

  • Keith Laughlin

    Let me offer a few comments in response to Tony. First, I agree with him that the post-war focus on building the interstate highway system was disastrous for America’s rail system. Second, he may not believe it, but I am the president of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and I love trains. It is totally false to claim that Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is “making plans to discontinue more railway corridors for use as recreational trails.” We have NEVER supported the discontinuation of rail service on any line. We only become involved in protecting a corridor after a railroad has already made the decision to discontinue service.

    As Tony says, we have been been quite successful in our efforts. In the last 25 years, we have worked in partnership with local communities to transform 20,000 miles of unused corridor into multi-use trails. Absent our collective efforts, those corridors would have been lost and would no longer be in the public domain. About 25 percent of that mileage has been “railbanked” under the federal statute to preserve rail corridors. On those corridors, our efforts have made it possible to reinstitute rail service at some future time if it is economically viable. And Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has never opposed reinstating rail service on a railbanked corridor. We do, however, make the case for pursuing rail-with-trail projects on such corridors because in many places it is safe and feasible for an active rail line to share the corridor with a multi-use trail.

    I agree with Tony on the value of an economic impact statement. In many places, the railroad was the lifeblood of the community and they suffered economic hardship when train service was halted. But we have documented many examples of communities that have successfully built economic redevelopment strategies on turning an unused rail corridor into a valuable community asset.

    In conclusion, I share Tony’s anguish over the fate of America’s rail system. But it is simply wrong to point the finger of blame at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. We are not anti-rail. Rather, for the last 25 years our mission has been to extract as much public benefit as possible from the unfortunate demise of America’s rail system.

  • Nathanael

     Unfortunately, a lot of rail-to-trail conversions *weren’t* railbanked.  And many of those are the ones we need back

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