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Posts from the "Federal Highway Administration" Category

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Finally Getting Serious About Measuring How Much People Walk and Bike

As you might expect, given the billions America spends on highways, measuring the activity of motorists is practically an industry unto itself.

Photo: Kitsapsun

But data collection on walking and biking is much less rigorous. In most American cities, measuring active transportation consists of recruiting some volunteers to spend a few hours once a year standing at an intersection counting bikes. As a result, very little good data about how many cyclists and pedestrians are out there using the streets and sidewalks is available.

“The current state of bike/ped counts is way behind where it should be,” said Darren Flusche, policy director at the League of American Bicyclists. “We know a lot about how to count cars but not a lot about how to count bikes.”

That causes all kinds of problems for street safety advocates. Flusche said the lack of good data can make safety comparisons difficult. Two cities, for example, with roughly the same population and the same number of cycling fatalities might appear to offer similar safety outcomes. But that would clearly be misleading if one city had a far higher rate of cycling.

It can also present problems when trying to make the case for bike lanes and pedestrian safety improvements to, say, a local business. It’s a lot easier to present a convincing argument when you have solid numbers about how many people will be making use of the new infrastructure.

The state of bike/ped data may soon improve. For the first time this year, the Federal Highway Administration has issued recommendations for “non-motorized” groups in its Traffic Monitoring Guide [PDF]. States and localities still have to want to collect data — there’s no one forcing them to do it — but this will be the first time that the “bible” for traffic counts even contemplates cyclists and pedestrians in its guidance.

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How States Are Adapting to MAP-21’s Changes to Bike/Ped Funding

One state's plan for Transportation Alternatives: Utah will use some of its $6.4 million for Recreational Trails and Safe Routes to School, give some to metro areas, and spend the rest on any type of surface transportation they want. Image courtesy of UDOT

The current transportation law dealt a few hard knocks to bicycling and walking programs. One big one was the restructuring of the Transportation Enhancements program into something called Transportation Alternatives, which has to fund more types of projects with less money.

The idea is that each state’s TA money will get split in half. Fifty percent gets allocated to Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and Transportation Management Areas (TMAs) based on population. Let’s call that the “Local 50.” Then the state gets the other half – the “State 50” – and is supposed to distribute it via a competitive grant process.

Local 50: It’s not quite 50

The first thing to know is that even the Local 50 isn’t always entirely under local control. The Local 50 gets distributed according to population to whatever entity represents each area. For large metro areas and sometimes even small urbanized areas, there’s an MPO or TMA in charge. But for rural areas, sometimes it’s just the state that run things.

President Obama signed MAP-21 nearly five months ago, but states are still trying to figure out what it all means. Photo: Fastlane

Take Michigan, for example. The state is looking to get $26 million in Transportation Alternatives funds. Of that, $2.9 million comes off the top for Recreational Trails, a separate program with its own money (raised from off-road vehicle fees) that’s administered by the Department of Natural Resources, not MDOT.

That leaves $11.6 million each for the Local 50 and the State 50 in Michigan.

About $6.5 million of the Local 50 will go to the TMAs in jurisdictions of more than 200,000 people. But the rest of the money — over $5 million from that supposedly “Local” 50 — goes to the state to distribute.

That’s before you even get to the half that the state is supposed to control.

This is how the Cardin-Cochran amendment is being interpreted on the ground. The amendment was a creative and hard-fought way to make sure that some TA money actually went to the sorts of projects the old Transportation Enhancements program used to fund – primarily bike and pedestrian infrastructure, plus some safety education.

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GAO: States “Flexing” Fewer Federal Dollars to Transit

States have the ability to spend 29 percent of federal transportation funds on any mode, but they only "flex" 10 percent of that to transit. Image by GAO, using FHWA and FTA data

Supporters of livable streets may hear about the “flexibility” of transportation dollars and cringe – after all, that word often refers to the ability of states to use bike/ped money for road building. But flexibility can work both ways. Between 2007 and 2011, states devoted $5 billion in surface transportation funds — known in some quarters as “highway money” — to transit programs, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The GAO just issued its second report on state flexing of highway dollars for transit. In its first report, the GAO found that states used 13 percent of their flexible highway funds for transit. That share has declined to 10 percent. The GAO did not offer an explanation for the drop.

Since 29 percent of federal transportation dollars are available to states to spend on just about any surface mode, that means about 3 percent of all federal funding is getting “flexed” to transit. Between 2007 and 2011, the GAO found, “four states — California, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia — accounted for the majority of flexible funding transferred to FTA for transit projects.” Each of those four states used more than 25 percent of their flexible funds for transit. Meanwhile, 16 states sent transit less than 2 percent of their flexible funding, with Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Delaware, and Hawaii flexing nothing.

The variability between states highlights a rarely remarked upon aspect of transportation funding: There’s a lot of room for states to spend more on transit under current law, if they choose. In fact, transit dollars go farther when states use these funds, because they only have to pony up the same local match that’s required for highways – usually 20 percent. The local match for transit projects is typically upwards of 50 percent.

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Why Recovery Aid Is Getting to Roads Faster Than Transit

As we reported yesterday, MAP-21 went into effect just in time for Hurricane Sandy, allowing the Federal Transit Administration similar emergency grant-making authority as FHWA. But Adam Snider at Politico reminded us this morning that the change is easier said than done.

New York's MTA can get donations from other transit agencies, but the FTA's power to release emergency grants is hindered by Congressional budgeting processes. Photo: r/sandy @Imgur

While U.S. DOT released $13 million yesterday to New York and Rhode Island for road repairs, the agency says FTA experts will join FEMA to assess damages and “help direct transit agencies to available federal assistance programs.” Staff and equipment will also be donated by transit agencies that weren’t affected by the storm. But those emergency grants that FTA has the newly-minted power to make? Not coming yet.

Politico’s Snider explains why:

MAP-21 created a new “public transportation emergency relief program” that would let FTA make grants for operations, repairs, equipment and more after a natural disaster. But the [continuing resolution] passed by Congress in September extended funds from the previous DOT appropriations bill — which didn’t include the FTA emergency program because it didn’t exist yet. The bottom line: FTA can’t make emergency grants to the affected agencies along the East Coast, though several transit experts expected FEMA to help out (“…but that’s a long process,” one source wrote). Congress could always address the issue in a Sandy-related emergency appropriations package when members return in mid-November.

Mid-November is a long way away for cities and transit agencies struggling to restore mobility in the immediate aftermath of the storm. What good is emergency grant-making authority if you can’t use it in the event of an emergency?

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FHWA Helps Cities and Towns Land Bike/Ped Funding

American cities and towns should get a leg up on using federal funds to make streets safer for biking and walking, thanks to rules enacted yesterday by the Federal Highway Administration.

Projects like this pedestrian bridge in Austin, Texas, which are built by local agencies, will get a boost from new FHWA rules. Photo: National Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse/R.E. Martin

MAP-21, the current transportation law, was passed hurriedly enough that not all the i’s could be dotted and t’s could be crossed — and some of those details simply aren’t the business of Congress to work out. It’s up to U.S. DOT to put a finer point on many of the provisions in the bill. The agency is still struggling with a lot of them and has, admirably, opened the door to significant public input to help them put meat on MAP-21′s bones.

Some of the details came out yesterday, with FHWA’s guidance on the Transportation Alternatives program, which replaced the popular Transportation Enhancements program as a major funding source for bicycle and pedestrian projects.

America Bikes was quick with its analysis of the pros and cons of the new rules, and chief among the good news is that the guidance preserves local control over bike/ped funds by denying states eligibility for TA funds.

The disappointing provisions in MAP-21 haven’t gone away. TA money still gets split down the middle, with half going to cities and towns and the other half going to the states. And state DOTs can still have the option of either running a competitive grant program with their half of the funds, or “flexing” their entire portion to whatever they want. But the good news is that states can no longer apply to their own grant programs, clearing the way for greater local access to these funds.

“If you make a contest with your own rules, and you apply to it, who’s going to win?” said Mary Lauran Hall, spokesperson for America Bikes.

Primarily, the rule means that if a state decides to use its TA funds on bike and pedestrian infrastructure, local agencies will have a greater say in how the funds get spent. And it won’t just prevent state bike/ped projects from competing against city bike/ped projects. One of the most disappointing changes in MAP-21 was that states can now spend TA funds on environmental mitigation for road building. Those tend to be big, expensive projects that can elbow crosswalks and bike lanes out of the running. This rule seemingly negates that option, unless the state finds a local agency to sponsor the environmental mitigation project.

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How Highway Spending Could Become as Transparent as Bike/Ped Spending

“There’s an inverse proportion of the size of a transportation program to the amount of transparency,” says Deron Lovaas of the Natural Resources Defense Council. While anyone can easily find in granular detail anything they would ever want to know about where bike/ped money goes, and they can get a pretty good idea of what’s going on with transit capital investments, highway spending is a black box — and that’s 80 percent of U.S. transportation dollars.

Why should this bike/ped path be subject to more rigorous reporting requirements ...

... than this highway? Above photo: National Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse. Bottom photo: This is Broken

But that could change if an unsung provision of the new transportation bill, MAP-21, is implemented as fully as it should be.

Right now, finding information about highway projects is incredibly hard. Want to find out how much a certain project cost and what money was used to build it? Great. You can search “104(j)” in the Federal Highways Administration website and get reports from 2008 and 2009. Looking for anything less than three years old? Better luck next time, buster. Hoping for a searchable database? Here’s a scanned Excel spreadsheet. I hope you don’t mind that every state reports from a third to half of their spending as “other.” Want to drill down deeper than topline numbers for programs and states? You’re asking a bit much, don’t you think?

Meanwhile, the world is your oyster if you’re curious how states are spending the pocket change devoted to bike/ped. The Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse lets you filter projects by state, type, and year on a digital database, going all the way back to the start of the Enhancements program in 1992 and updated through 2011.

Curious about the bike lane and sidewalk put in near Santa Fe High School in Alachua County, Florida, in 2009? It cost $86,511 total, consisting of $13,500 in federal funds, $67,963 in stimulus funds and a $5,048 local match. Would you like fries with that?

If only as much accountability were demanded of multimillion dollar highway projects as they were of $86,000 bike lanes.

Thanks to Section 1503(c) of MAP-21, it could get easier to hold states accountable for the highways they build. The section, titled “Transparency and Accountability,” says U.S. DOT will have to make expenditure data for highways and transit publicly accessible, organized by project and state, regularly updated “to reflect the current status of obligations, expenditures, and Federal-aid projects” – and it should be searchable and downloadable. And it should be submitted to Congress.

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FHWA Offers a Guide for American Cities and Towns Considering Bike-Share

Weekday usage patterns of Washington DC's Capital Bikeshare, Denver B-cycle, and Minneapolis's Nice Ride. Image: FHWA

The Federal Highway Administration has come out with a handy report [PDF] for communities thinking about getting into the bike-sharing game. Based on a study of 12 planned and existing bike-sharing systems from around the U.S., the report is intended to help explain the basics of bike-share and guide cities through the choices they’ll face when launching a system. While the specific advice isn’t exactly groundbreaking, the mere fact that the FHWA has produced the guide indicates that bike-sharing is becoming increasingly common in America.

In the report, FHWA offers guidance on topics from bike-share business models to station planning and implementation. It outlines typical costs per bike and per station, as well as pricing structures for bike-share members. The report also provides a useful guide to the potential sources of federal funding for bike-share systems. (Most systems rely on a combination of federal, state and local funding sources.)

All of the lessons collected in the report come from U.S. cities, not from the world’s leading bike-share systems, which limits the document but perhaps makes the idea of bike-share seem more attainable to other American cities. Among the existing bike-share systems examined for the report, Washington DC’s Capital Bikeshare is the largest, with about 1,700 bikes and 175 stations currently. By comparison, Montreal’s Bixi has 5,000 bikes, and London’s bike-share system has about 8,000.

Here’s a look at what the FHWA is telling prospective bike-share cities.

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How State DOTs Got Congress to Grant Their Wish List

Bike and pedestrian funding got slashed. Federal assistance for transit operations was rejected. Even the performance measures – arguably the high point of the recently passed federal transportation bill – are too weak to be very meaningful. For Americans who want federal policy to support safe streets, sustainable transportation, and livable neighborhoods, there were few bright spots in the transportation bill Congress passed last month.

AASHTO Director John Horsley is thrilled with the new transportation bill, which gave state DOTs just about everything they wanted. Photo: International Transport Forum

But state transportation departments are celebrating. They scored victory after victory, getting a bigger share of federal funding with fewer rules and regulations attached.

In the Senate, advocates were able to work some reforms into the bill and mobilize grassroots support for amendments like the Cardin-Cochran provision, which put funds for street safety projects in the hands of local governments, not state DOTs. But the House never managed to pass a bill of its own, and the opaque conference committee process was an exercise in horse-trading that advocates found difficult to penetrate.

The final product, which included measures like raising the federal contribution for certain highway expansions, seemed finely tailored to benefit DOTs in several ways. “This is a bill written by and for the benefit of state DOTs at the expense of both federal oversight and regional and community outcomes,” wrote David Burwell, director of the climate change program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an email shortly after the bill passed. He said the policy changes “are too elegantly crafted and specific in their effect to have been written, or even conceived, by members of Congress or their staff.”

For state DOTs, access to lawmakers is a given. “We worked very closely with the House and Senate to craft those measures,” AASHTO Director John Horsley confirmed to Streetsblog in an interview yesterday. He said that while AASHTO offered recommendations, no text written by AASHTO made it into the bill verbatim, as far as he knows.

According to Horsley’s account, AASHTO followed a pretty standard script when it came to advocating for their interests on the Hill. Every stakeholder and special interest under the sun had its lobbyists knocking on lawmakers’ doors, offering their two cents – everyone from gravel producers to equipment manufacturers to environmentalists to free market fundamentalists. It’s just that the state DOTs seemed to get everything on their wish list.

Horsley said AASHTO had been laying the groundwork for many, many months before conference started, working with Republican House Transportation Committee staffers as well as aides of both parties in the Senate. (He didn’t mention working with House Democrats, who were shut out of the process from day one.)

The House is where the magic happened for AASHTO. “We’ve been very pleased with where the Senate bill started,” Horsley said. “And we were even more pleased when the House and the Senate in conference agreed to incorporate a lot of the House provisions that were even better for states.”

What were those House provisions? Horsley went through the list:

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Under New Bill, America’s Transpo Loan Program Ignores National Goals

In the highly polarized and antagonistic transportation bill negotiations, dragged out over the course of almost a year, there was one thing that Democrats and Republicans could agree on: vastly expanding the TIFIA loan program. The Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program has, since 1998, provided federal credit assistance at favorable interest rates to surface transportation projects of national and regional significance.

San Francisco's Transbay Transit Center got a $171 million TIFIA loan in 2010. Will new rules make it harder for visionary projects like this to compete? Image: Archithings

Under the new bill, however, it appears any old highway plan will do.

MAP-21, the transportation bill that is now on its way to the president for his signature, turned TIFIA from a $122 million program to a $1 billion program – and at the same time, made it completely useless as an instrument to reward and enable innovation.

The bill eliminated all project selection criteria from the TIFIA program. It’s now first-come-first-served.

“By removing those selection criteria, they’ve basically turned the federal government into a bank,” said Sarah Kline, director of policy for Reconnecting America, “instead of an entity with national policy in mind.”

TIFIA used to employ the following criteria to evaluate potential loan recipients:

  • national or regional significance (including livability, economic competitiveness, and safety) — 20 percent
  • private participation — 20 percent
  • environmental sustainability and state of good repair — 20 percent
  • whether the loan would help accelerate project delivery — 12.5 percent
  • creditworthiness — 12.5 percent
  • use of technology — 5 percent
  • consumption of budget authority — 5 percent
  • whether the loan would reduce the need for federal grants — 5 percent

Under the new bill, creditworthiness now accounts for pretty much the full 100 percent.

Projects will still need to be approved by the U.S. DOT credit council. “They’re not rubberstamping things that come through,” said Kerry O’Hare, vice president of Building America’s Future and a former FHWA administrator.  “There’s a real financial analysis that’s done. People don’t just willy-nilly say, ‘We’re going to sign off on this.’”

But the credit council is looking only at the ability to repay loans. Not sustainability, not significance, not economic competitiveness.

“The federal government essentially has no control over what kind of projects get built,” Kline said. “As long as you come in with an application that is technically eligible and meets the credit-worthiness, it’s not clear to me that the federal government can say, ‘No, this is not the kind of project we want to fund; we’re looking for things that are innovative; this is not innovative.’”

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Green Lane Project Spreads the Word About NACTO’s Bikeway Design Guide

For the next two years, the Green Lane Project will lend expertise and support to Austin, Chicago, Memphis, Portland, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. as those cities implement the type of infrastructure that has proven successful at leading people to take up biking for transportation. The project bills itself as a “storytelling campaign” for the cities to share their experiences.

NACTO and the Green Lane Project are trying to make protected bike facilities a standard engineering treatment. Photo: Utility Cycling

“We want to build that library of great examples from the United States… rather than having to point people to Europe,” said Green Lane Project director Martha Roskowski.

The Green Lane Project — which officially kicks off Thursday with an event in Chicago — will also make an impact beyond those six cities. By broadly disseminating the Urban Bikeway Design Guide, a pioneering document released last year by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, the project will reach a critical audience in places that may not have the level of political support for bike infrastructure found in the six cities receiving direct assistance.

Last March the Boulder-based organization Bikes Belong, which oversees the Green Lane Project, co-sponsored the publication of the NACTO guide, the country’s first attempt at a uniform set of traffic-engineering standards for effective bike infrastructure such as protected bike lanes, bike boxes, bike signals and a host of treatments that are just now gaining currency in American cities.

Bikes Belong is also providing funding for the guide’s second module, due out next month, which focuses on bike boulevards.

A guiding force behind these efforts is the vision for more protected bike lanes in the U.S.

“If you look at the good Dutch or Danish systems, on the bigger streets, you provide protection and separation,” said Randy Neufeld, director of the SRAM Cycling Fund. (SRAM, the other sponsor of the NACTO guide, is the major funding source for the Green Lane Project.)

The challenge now is to foster the adoption of NACTO’s designs, so the guide can hold its own next to old-guard engineering standards like the FHWA’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices and the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials’ design guidelines.

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