States May Forfeit $1 Billion in Biking and Walking Funding

Photo:  Bikemore
Photo: Bikemore

States across the country are at risk of forfeiting up to $1 billion in funding for sidewalk construction, bike trails or other important safety projects — if they don’t use all the federal cash by September, according to the League of American Bicyclists.

States face a looming deadline for “rescissions,” a routine budgetary practice where unspent portions of transportation funding must be returned to the federal government. Right now states have about $1 billions in unobligated biking and walking funds.

The problem is one of political will, says Caron Whitaker, the Bike League’s vice president for government relations. By comparison, very little money for highways is in danger of being lost to rescissions, she said.

“States in general are focused on building roads from one community to another and not the roads within a community,” she said. “So they use the highway money really fast.”

The federal government only hands down about $800 million a year for walking and biking through its Transportation Alternatives program. A $1-billion rescission from walking and biking programs would amount to about a quarter of all the available funding over the last five years.

To make matters worse, the threat of defunding is occurring during a period of skyrocketing pedestrian deaths.

Meanwhile, demand for biking and walking funds remains strong. In 2016 and 2017 alone, local governments submitted applications for funding that totaled $3 billion, according to Whitaker.

In addition to the $1 billion in biking and walking funds, states are also at risk of forfeiting a big portion of Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality project funding.

Tennessee May forfeit $43 million for example and Texas $87 million. Check out how much your state stands to lose here [Excel].

26 thoughts on States May Forfeit $1 Billion in Biking and Walking Funding

  1. Wait, so California agencies submitted billions of dollars worth of ask to the ATP Cycle IV for just $400mn worth of funding last year, but they are leaving nearly a billion dollars at risk of rescission?

  2. So what is at risk here are funds that were programmed (or planned for environmental studies, design, or construction costs) in the Federal 2018-2019 fiscal year. So there are funds from multiple ATP and CMAQ grant cycles that are actually at risk of being forfeited. Much of the money is actually federal money that is passed through Caltrans, MPOs or counties to local agencies in the form of grants.

    Agencies don’t need to actually spend the money by September. But they do need to show the grant agency (at whatever level) that they are ready to start spending money. This is usually on the condition of a issuance of a document called an E-76, which basically certifies that the project is ready to start spending money in the project phase that the allocation was programmed for.

    A request for authorization can take months (or longer) to put together, and can take another month or two for the grantor to review and approve so they can issue an E-76. Remember, agencies like Caltrans and SCAG want to have the projects they awarded grants for to be completed. A lot of the onus is on local agency staff to complete what is often an exhaustive paperwork exercise, on top of the actual design/construction/whatever that is needed anyway for the project to be completed.

    There aren’t a lot of agency staff who are trained as grant managers; most are planners or engineers who design projects or analyze their benefits and impacts. Most agencies don’t have a dedicated transportation grant manager, and the requirements are a maze of shifting deadlines, CTC meetings (in CA at least), environmental review requirements and more. It’s not always easy to win these grants, and deliver the projects to completion. God help you if you have federal and state/local money on a project; the reporting paperwork basically doubles.

    It’s no wonder there’s a billion dollars at risk. The Feds don’t give this money away easily, and they want you to prove that you’re spending it responsibly. I hope most of the projects can be obligated in time; it’s a real blow if they aren’t, especially because it can affect future federal allocations to bike and pedestrian projects.

  3. Thanks. I have heard that the E-76s are also part of the problem, especially for outreach/educational efforts. I’ve spoken with some city staff who are willing and wanting to spend some of the money on outreach efforts prior to construction, but can’t because of how the grant works. On the other hand, that could be an idea for future grant cycles in just reminding agencies to program the NI money earlier if they want to use it earlier.

  4. Are those chain-link fences on that overpass funded through ‘Transportation Alternatives’ funding?

    I would like to think it a ridiculous question but I have a sinking feeling that it is.

  5. Jonathan , you seem to have a working knowledge of the workings of this , would love to ask you a few questions

  6. There’s an attitude that it’s more important to make sure no one spends money in a corrupt way than to make sure money isn’t wasted. $2 of waste to prevent $1 of corruption is something a lot of people will happily go for.

  7. Unlikely. Sidewalks on a structure aren’t added after the fact. And that brings up an important issue; there are a lot of transportation projects that mainstream bike and ped as part of a bigger transportation project. And TAP isn’t the only federal funding source, so that $1B doesn’t all come from TAP if rescinded.

  8. You are totally on the mark. The well-intentioned measures to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse a) make things a headache, b) add to the cost and time to deliver projects, and c) create such a maze that in some instances it seems people can figure out ways to game the system as a result. The more complex, the harder to tease it all out sometimes.

  9. Jonathan is on the mark in general (I don’t know the CA intricacies). It is especially a problem because bike and ped projects are often much more simple (bike lanes, connecting missing sidewalks, etc) than something where there is considerable construction and environmental impacts, yet they all have to follow the same processes if there is one penny of federal funding on the project. It is often a square peg in a round hole. While a lot of fed funding is an 80/20 split, the extra costs and admin burdens really makes it more like 60/40. Further, localities can’t use city forces to do the work; you have to bid it out, further raising the costs. But cash-strapped localities don’t have the budgets so they look to the fed programs.

  10. Exactly. That money for outreach often has to come from local funds, since outreach is rarely a qualified expense under a lot of grants. Most grant programs require the applicant to prove the benefits of the projects (usually through a benefit-cost analysis), but not prove community support. The only stakeholder support that helps the application is things like letters from legislators, council staff, non-profits, etc; community meetings are not required for grant applications.

    This creates a conflict once the project is underway, since community meetings (AKA “public notice”) are usually required for CEQA and most project planning efforts. But the public outreach process is a highly political one, and agencies rarely will want to commit funds to what is typically an uphill battle for bike/ped projects. Frequently, the political blowback, which is rarely focused on the benefits or design of a project, can often result in projects being modified to the point of ineffectiveness, or outright cancelled. Which of course prompts leadership being even more reluctant to program outreach funds into an project application that could end up as such.

    This is not a rule, but I have seen it play out frequently, with agency staff (or consultants) putting together some excellent projects which end up returning grant money.

  11. Yes, but I would much rather have transparency in how my tax dollars were being spent, instead of an already high project bid being tripled because no one was holding contractors accountable. There is a lot of talk of pay to play in development and infrastructure development, but believe me, it could be a lot worse if some of these accountability checks (onerous as they are) were not in place.

  12. Even in large cities like Los Angeles, the agency will frequently need to solicit bids from the construction arm of their public works agency (this is called the General Services Division in L.A.), which is often just as expensive as private contracting. Since a lot of prices for public work are set using a set of construction costs that are already marked up, divisions like G.S.D. have an artificial inflation baked in. Add to that any union requirements (which are essential, don’t get me wrong here), and you have a very expensive RRFB that everyone feels should be simpler and much cheaper to install.

  13. Well this a platform I am new to . and not quite sure how to DM you? nicksurestop@gmail ? apparently Im a T rex

  14. I’ve wondered how much of a dollar of tax paid to the feds remains after it is awarded back to local/state agencies following all the processing and paperwork along the way. I’d rather pay higher local taxes and lower federal taxes to avoid this inefficient and circuitous process. And states like CA get less from the feds than is paid in taxes on top of all that.

  15. Anyone know how to get this money allocated to TAP applicants who weren’t chosen during that round of funding?

  16. Is this due to the fact that transportation funding is up in 2020?
    Smart Growth America has a call to action within their dangerous by design report that says we must demand congress adopt Complete Streets and secure if not increase funding for safer walk/bike facilities.

    CS legislation at the federal level would be great but I am at the moment focused on the spending bill.

  17. I have a question about how up to date this information is for New Jersey. Trail, bike and pedestrian advocates sounded the alarm last year that NJ DOT was going to lose $23 million due to rescissions and the DOT obligated the money on Oct. 26, 2018 https://www.state.nj.us/transportation/about/press/2018/102618a.shtm
    What year do the figures in the spreadsheet in the article represent? Full disclosure, I’m a reporter for NJ.com who’s been following this issue

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