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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 MAP-21 Allocates Transpo Funds Where They’re Needed Least

Who wins and who loses when political wheeling and dealing takes the place of sound decision-making on transportation? Graphic: CAP

Transportation reauthorizations have typically not been a time for major discussions about national policy goals. They’ve been a time for getting while the getting’s good, a time for deal-making and pork and a lot of back-room transactions to make sure every member of Congress could go home and talk about how much federal money they were bringing home.

If MAP-21 accomplished anything it was to change that conversation. It eliminated earmarks – no small feat, as the previous transportation bill, 2005′s SAFETEA-LU, was one of the most heavily-earmarked pieces of legislation ever. MAP-21 also eliminated funding formulas, which used to hold up every bill for at least a year or two as Congress members tried to manipulate the numbers to benefit their states. And the bill also eliminated the “equity bonus” program, which ate up 22 percent of transportation funding in 2010 and was, at its heart, the exact opposite of everything reformers are seeking in the transportation bill. The explicit purpose of the equity bonus program was to reallocate billions of dollars to where the money was not needed — and it was the biggest funding program by far in SAFETEA-LU, accounting for nearly $10 billion in 2010.

Unfortunately, although MAP-21 eliminated these inefficient calculations, it froze in place the funding levels that politicians arrived at through this wheeling and dealing. The new law based state-by-state allocations on the share of the total pie each state got in 2009 – and that share was determined by how well the state fared in flawed funding formulas and the equity bonus program.

Donna Cooper and John Griffith at the Center for American Progress just published a report called “Highway Robbery,” lamenting the fact that the equity bonus isn’t truly dead – its legacy still haunts our transportation funding system.

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As MAP-21 Takes Effect, Road Builders Vie for TIFIA Funds

It’s October 1, the start of the federal government’s fiscal year 2013, and the first official day of the MAP-21 transportation law. The law was signed July 6 but got a three-month grace period to let U.S. DOT set guidance and give states a little time to get ready for the new requirements — things like setting up grant programs to distribute bike/ped funding to local communities (though they can also just squander that money).

The Virginia DOT has applied for a TIFIA loan to help build its $1.7 billion replacement of Route 460, southeast of Richmond, to address all this terrible congestion. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dougtone/6326578019/Flickr/Doug Kerr

The TIFIA loan program can make about $7.5 billion in federal loans this year — up from $1.2 billion last year, and a stepping stone on the way to an even greater level of lending next year. States are already jockeying to borrow. Of the 11 letters of interest U.S. DOT has received from transportation departments seeking TIFIA credit assistance, all are for roads and bridges, except one for an aviation project. There’s nothing for transit, as far as I can tell, especially since Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration has stripped the transit component from New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project. Cuomo is seeking between $2.4 and $2.9 billion for the bridge.

This is what experts warned about when TIFIA funding became a first-come, first-served program: Simple road projects with plans already on the shelf will be easy to submit, whereas transit projects could take longer to apply for.

Though there’s reason for concern over the scuttling of TIFIA project selection criteria regarding anything but the ability to pay back the loan, Ray LaHood wrote in a blog entry last week, “Submitting a Letter of Interest is no guarantee of DOT approval. Once all applications are in, they will be held to strict standards.” And since a project’s place in line is determined by the date of the application, not the letter of interest, these 11 projects might not be winners. Congress will get a full report on the status of the applications at the end of this calendar year.

Although today marks MAP-21′s big debut, there are still dozens of elements of the bill that won’t take effect for years. For example, at the end of this year, FHWA will issue guidance to states that the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices — the street design guidebook that is increasingly out of step with America’s leading city transportation departments — “should not be considered a substitute for engineering judgment.” Changes to environmental review requirements made as part of Congress’s push to “streamline” project delivery will be official next January, with different kinds of projects getting exempted from review at different points over the next few years [PDF].

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Will MAP-21 Require Thousands More Dangerous Stroads?

Shown in red are some of the arterial roads the Oregon Department of Transportation thinks will need to be upgraded to comply with MAP-21. Photo: Bike Portland

An obscure provision of the new federal transportation bill is sparking concerns that it could erode walkability and bikeability in communities around the country. The so-called “Enhanced National Highway System” provision would require all major arterial roads to be folded into the national highway system. That could provide greater pressure for local entities to comply with AASHTO’s often highway-inspired standards, like wide lanes and shoulders that encourage car capacity at the expense of pedestrian safety.

The provision will result in a near doubling of the number of roads that will be part of the national highway system. But what will it mean for livable streets? There are lots of different opinions out there.

Jonathan Maus, at Bike Portland, who broke this story, said:

The significance of these roadways becoming part of the National Highway System is that if PBOT engineers want to make any changes that deviate from FHWA design standards for “principal arterials”, they would have to go through a cumbersome process of applying for exceptions.

In the words of a source at ODOT, “this designation basically forces state and local governments to treat arterials like major highways… Speed will increase, certain designs, like bulb outs, won’t be allowed without an exception. So on and so on.”

Travis Brouwer, senior federal affairs adviser for the Oregon Department of Transportation, echoed those concerns to some extent. Brouwer said the state was racing to reclassify its major arterials, up to 600 miles of road, by October 1, when the new law goes into effect.

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Boxer Demands Restoration of MAP-21 Funding Levels

The MAP-21 transportation bill was just signed two months ago, and its funding levels, agreed to by a difficult and fragile compromise between warring political parties, are already under attack.

Sen. Boxer toured a BART construction project last month in San Jose. Photo courtesy of Office of Sen. Barbara Boxer.

In Congress, authorization and budgeting are two different processes, run out of different committees. And right now, House budgeters are looking to shave down the $52.6 billion a year MAP-21 allocated for transportation. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who presided over the passage of MAP-21, would like to see those authorized numbers stay sacrosanct.

Meanwhile, Congress is bound by the Budget Control Act, passed by Congress last summer as part of the debt ceiling deal, to cap overall funding levels at $1.047 trillion for next year. The House is working on a six-month continuing resolution to fund the federal government at that level for FY2013. (That’s the way Congress has been passing budgets lately – since they can’t agree on a real budget, they just pass continuing resolutions and agree to keep the previous year’s budget, sometimes with a little tinkering.)

The House’s continuing resolution would cut transportation funding half a billion dollars below MAP-21 levels.

In a letter sent yesterday to House Speaker John Boehner, Boxer reminded him that MAP-21 was “bipartisan legislation which passed the House of Representatives with an overwhelming vote of 373-52” and that it “included an inflationary adjustment for fiscal years 2013 and 2014” which the House bill “failed to protect.”

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Politico: Boxer Already Working on the Next Transportation Bill

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) confirmed she is already working on the next transportation bill — “two months to the day after President Obama signed MAP-21 into law and before the new policies even kick in on Oct. 1,” according to Politico, which broke the story this morning.

Sen. Barbara Boxer is already thinking about the next bill. Photo: flickr/JD Lasica

In an interview with Adam in Charlotte, Boxer said her “goal is to find a dependable funding source and to work in a bipartisan way to find that funding source. I really believe that the Highway Trust Fund should be funded through user fees.” That might include indexing the gas tax to inflation, but probably not a vehicle miles traveled fee, which raises privacy concerns for the California senator. Even a gas tax bump won’t be enough if vehicles keep getting more and more efficient.

Reformers have some ideas for the next bill, too. Making the Highway Trust Fund self-sustaining is a good goal, since a strapped fund leads to some really bad ideas, like jettisoning mass transit and even the tiny sliver of the pie allocated to active transportation. Putting national goals like emissions reductions and public health improvement front and center would help too — as long as real performance measures are attached.

In any event, that was a quick honeymoon period. If you thought you were going to have at least six months to rest on your laurels before getting back into the ring to fight for a better bill next time around: Surprise! It’s game time.

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September 1: Deadline for States to Opt Out of Recreational Trails Funding

The MAP-21 transportation bill in many ways made it tougher for cities and towns to provide safer streets for walking and biking. Projects to build bike lanes and sidewalks now have to compete harder for the tiny bit of funding they’re eligible for. And right now, states are deciding whether or not to “opt out” of the Recreational Trails Program (RTP). Instead of spending RTP money on bicycle and pedestrian trails — both urban and rural — states can “opt” to spend it on something else.

Even rail-trail-hating Gov. Sam Brownback says Kansas will use their Recreational Trails funding. Will he make the same promise of other bike/ped funds? Photo: Pitch

But the fact is that RTP made it out of the conference process more intact than some of its sister bike/ped programs. It kept its “dedicated” funding, although that dedication is awfully porous. Then again, it always has been.

MAP-21 put the Recreational Trails Program under the umbrella of the larger Transportation Alternatives program, but RTP retained $85 million of its own funding, with each state getting the same amount they were apportioned in 2009. While Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to School lost their dedicated funds, RTP kept its money because it comes from a different source: a gas tax on off-road vehicles.

That unique funding source has more or less safeguarded a program that’s focused on recreation — albeit with many important urban connectors under its belt — while throwing more transportation-oriented programs under the proverbial bus.

RTP got off relatively scot-free in what was a bruising bill process for other bike/ped programs. “What can I say?” said Marianne Fowler, senior vice president of federal relations at the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. “We’re really happy.” She also added that recreational trails built from this fund have another benefit: They’re not treated as federal-aid highways, since the facilities aren’t roadways. That means they don’t need to comply with the same onerous project reviews and contracting processes. Unfortunately, Safe Routes to School hasn’t had the same luck, meaning simple crosswalk projects can sometimes get tangled up in red tape.

All isn’t rosy with RTP, though. Governors can opt out of the program, meaning the money would go back into their total amount for Transportation Alternatives (which can then be squandered on road-building or anything else they like).

It used to be that there was only a “back door” opt-out, according to RTC’s Fowler. That back door is still open, but there’s a “front door” now too.

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There’s a Lot Riding on U.S. DOT’s Definition of “Congestion”

Congress has done its job, such as it is, and passed a transportation bill. Now it’s handed off the policymaking to U.S. DOT, which must issue a raft of rules, definitions, and guidance to accompany the new law, known as MAP-21.

The wrong way to measure travel performance: "Travel Time Index" awards a better score to Charlotte than Chicago, even though commutes in Chicago are shorter, because drivers in Charlotte spend a higher percentage of their time in free-flowing traffic. Graphic: CEOs for Cities

According to sources with intimate knowledge of this process, much depends on how DOT decides to measure congestion. New performance measures for the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program (CMAQ) — and quite possibly for the entire national highway system (depending how they define “roadway performance”) — require a working definition of congestion.

If the agency follows the prevailing orthodoxy, states could be rewarded for wasteful highway spending. If it adopts better measurements, smarter investments and less wasteful spending will follow.

The CMAQ measures will also require a definition of “cost-effectiveness,” a related but somewhat separate can of worms.

U.S. DOT Should Include Distance Driven in Any Measure of Congestion

Performance measures in the MAP-21 law have been criticized for being toothless, since many of them don’t have consequences attached. However, there is still the possibility that state performance rankings could be made public. And a spotlight on state failures could be an effective way to encourage good decisions.

Streetsblog asked Joe Cortright for his advice to DOT officials struggling to define congestion. Cortright is an economist and senior policy advisor for CEOs for Cities. In 2010 the organization commissioned him to write Driven Apart, a critique of prevailing methods of measuring congestion. His words of wisdom for U.S. DOT: “Don’t make the mistake the Texas Transportation Institute makes.”

TTI’s Urban Mobility Report, released every year, invariably gives top honors to places that have overbuilt road capacity. The institute measures congestion only by looking at the degree to which traffic slows down people’s commutes. The problem with that, Cortright says, is that “you end up rewarding places that encourage people to drive longer and longer distances, and then you look at those long distances that they’re traveling, and say because they’re moving at a relatively higher speed much of the time that they’re driving, that the system is somehow performing better.”

Over the past few years, U.S. DOT has been very deliberately working hand-in-glove with HUD and the EPA to treat transportation and land use as one cohesive system. It only makes sense that the agency use the same ethic in measuring roadway performance and congestion. By doing so, DOT would have to acknowledge that a long commute along miles and miles of free-flowing highways is no bargain compared to a short commute in dense traffic, not to mention an even shorter commute on transit.

Clark Williams-Derry, research director for the sustainability-focused Sightline Institute, suggests that congestion may simply be the wrong thing to measure.Focusing on congestion is like, in a basketball game, focusing only on the number of assists you get,” Williams-Derry said. “It’s an interesting fact, but it doesn’t tell you the final score.”

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MAP-21 Puts the Squeeze on Bridge Repair and Bikes

One of the most popular elements of the new transportation authorization is its consolidation or elimination of 60 federal programs. But this cleanup is not without its casualties. One of those casualties is the off-system bridge program. And another one, indirectly, is bicycle and pedestrian programming.

Source: Transportation for America

As you can see, the Highway Bridge Program is no more. It’s been replaced by the National Highway Performance Program (NHPP). But bridges that fall outside the National Highway System — more than half the country’s bridges — aren’t covered by the NHPP. Those “off-system” bridges are now part of the Surface Transportation Program (STP).

There’s just one problem with that.

“All of the bridge money went to NHPP but less than half the bridges went there,” said Nick Donohue of Transportation for America. “The others went to STP with no money.”

The Surface Transportation Program, or STP, is a large, flexible and multimodal program, and has historically been a good source of funds for bicycle and pedestrian projects. Though states have spent an average of just 0.8 percent of their STP funds on biking and walking over the last five years, according to an analysis by the League of American Bicyclists, that equals $333 million — a significant chunk of change when you’re talking about such cost-effective projects. As a point of comparison, that’s about a quarter as much as was spent over that same period by the Transportation Enhancements program, which was aimed more specifically at bike/ped projects.*

Shifting bridge repair into STP without a proportionate increase in funding will make competition stiffer than ever for STP funds, according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

To make matters worse, there’s now less local control over those dollars. Under the new bill, metropolitan areas are getting a smaller slice of the STP pie. It used to be that 62.5 percent of STP funds were sub-allocated to cities and towns according to population. Now, it’s only 50 percent.

That means that local entities, not just states, will be left with too much to do with too little STP money, according to Donohue. “They left 180,000 bridges out in the cold,” he said, “and now local communities and MPOs have a false choice to make with STP money — fixing these bridges or using the funds for the innovative projects they build with STP funds today.”

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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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