States are Losing Millions in Biking and Walking Funds

Republicans gutted the transportation alternatives program in 2012, but states aren't even spending all the money that's available.

Photo:  Friends of the Delaware Canal /a>
Photo: Friends of the Delaware Canal /a>

Hundreds of millions of federal dollars set aside to build desperately needed sidewalks, bike lanes or trails are instead being squandered by states through mismanagement, active disinterest or simply because they can, a new study reveals.

About $635 million in funding sent to states and regional planners under the federal “Transportation Alternatives Program” has been shifted toward road projects over the last five years. Another $23 million was simply forfeited altogether just in the last two years because it was not spent in time, according to the report by the Rails to Trails Conservancy.

In total, states and metropolitan planning organizations receive about $850 million a year — or 1.8 percent of federal surface transportation funding — for biking and walking. And demand for the money is high. Only about half the of the 5,000 or so projects that applied for funding in 2017 got it.

Even so, many of the agencies charged with administering the funding don’t seem very interested in doing what it takes to dole it out.

“Lots of states are doing a great job. And lots of states are doing a poor job,” Kevin Mills, RTC’s Senior Vice President of Policy  told Streetsblog. “It reflects the degree of priority and political will the program is given within the implementing agency.”

One of the big offenders is New Jersey, according to Rails to Trails. The Garden State, for example, let $6 million in biking and walking funding lapse by not spending it by the four-year deadline.

Eight states forfeited $23 million in biking and walking funds over the last two years through mismanagement. Graph: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Eight states forfeited $23 million in biking and walking funds over the last two years through mismanagement. Graph: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Rails to Trails officials said they advised New Jersey to transfer the funds out of the program into another walking and biking program that wouldn’t be subject to the deadline — as Oregon and some other states do — but New Jersey refused. Now another $12 million that could be used for trails is in danger of being lost, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia is reporting.

Texas also does not prioritize the program. The state transferred $150 million — that could have been spent on biking and walking — to roads and other projects between 2013 and 2018.

(A detailed summary of how much money each state transferred is available on page 29 of this report. Forfeited money is on page 26.)

Michigan is one of the best states for taking advantage of TAP funds by creating an ongoing pipeline of projects and allowing localities to submit for funding even before it becomes available from the feds, Rails to Trails says. Such strategies ensure that there will be enough grantees for all the available dollars, even if some projects fall behind schedule because of unexpected delays with land acquisition or engineering.

Prior to 2012, much less biking and walking money was falling through the cracks, with just only $192 million in funding relinquished over the prior two decades.

But MAP-21, the federal transportation bill that passed in 2012, weakened federal support for walking and biking, thanks to Republican lawmakers who wanted to kill the program outright. They did not succeed but were able to impose a 30-percent funding cut and weaken the program by allowing up to 50 percent of TAP funds to be transferred to other uses such as highways. The bill also imposed the four-year deadline for spending the money. The millions being squandered now are a result of both that bad policy and poor administration, says Mills.

“After MAP-21 … It became super easy to either intentionally or by weak administration to find yourself letting the money go, one way or another,” said Mills.

  • TakeFive

    Reroute those funds to Colorado where people live to be outside.

  • So what’s the problem? Inept DOTs? Unfamiliarity? Something else?

  • dustinjamesfoster

    Send that money to California! We would love to have an additional few hundred million $ per year to supplement our Active Transportation Program!

  • thielges

    I’m not sure what is happening on the federal level but at a local level the root issue is having good sponsors to write the grants required to qualify for the funds. My county’s regional transportation agency would make a few million available annually to the dozen or so city jurisdictions. It was up to each city to propose projects which were then taken to a committee for selection. Cities who proposed good, well defined shovel ready projects had the advantage. Not all cities are equal. The poorer cities fared poorly while the wealthier cities who had a grant writer on the payroll were able to scoop up the lion’s share. The result is that the wealthier cities developed really nice facilities while the poorer cities were left with terrible infrastructure.

    I tried alerting the political leadership in some of the poorer cities but didn’t get any traction. Things are becoming more equatable though as some cities that have been losing out are waking up to the fact that they’re leaving money on the table. They’re now taking a more proactive approach.

  • Scott Gage

    Uh, no.

  • Stephen Simac

    Marin County received $25 million in federal grants over four years 2006-2010 for increasing bicycle and pedestrian trips, which was supplemented with another several million in state and local funds. They spent most of it on about 20 miles of bike lanes and a few hundred yards of sidewalks. Still cheaper than a lane of freeway, but not a lot of bang for the bucks.

  • Stephen Simac

    what state do you live in?

  • thielges

    Santa Clara County, CA (a.k.a. Silicon Valley)

  • Alan

    Lack of capacity, lots of cities dont have a transportation planner on staff to do such things or theyre too overworked to get it through the local administrative process in time.

  • Roads_Wide_Open

    misleading a little bit. This article makes it seem these are the only funds available for bike/ped. They are not, though these are the only funds that can be used for that purpose exclusively.

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