New Transportation Bill Means Changes for Bike Funding and Bike Advocates

By Charles Pekow

The rules of the road – and the bike trail – are about to change. Ready or not, here they come. And bike advocates better get ready because the game is changing come October 1. On that date, the new federal law governing federal funding for bike projects kicks in. And it ends 20 years of guarantees of federal aid to states for for bicycle projects.

The law, officially called the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21, on the one hand cuts and consolidates the major sources of aid to states to build bike facilities and provide safety education.

On the other hand, the law devolves decisions once made in Washington to state officials, and decisions made by states to local officials. This means that relationships with mayors and other local office holders will become more important to ensuring continued development of bicycle infrastructure. And the bill actually creates a few new opportunities to improve bike safety and expand facilities.

President Barack Obama signed the law early in July. Officials from the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), spoken to shortly thereafter, said they need time to figure out what it means, meet with federal officials and figure out how to implement it. But they said they remained committed to supporting bicycling programs. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) was still trying to figure it all out itself – Congress gave it less than three months to get it going. And national bike advocates realize that state and local bike groups are going to have to shoulder more of the burden and that the balance of the national advocate job is going to shift from mainly lobbying in Washington to more helping state and local groups.

But by and large, cyclists can't take any federal funding for granted, as they could for 20 years under MAP-21's predecessors. The new law lasts just two years – through September of 2014. so before we really know its effects, it will be time to start working on a successor. Congressional staff have said they plan to start work on a new bill in the fall.

“The front line has moved to the state and local level,” notes Jeff Miller, president of the Alliance for Biking and Walking (ABW).

The largest sources of federal funds for bicycling, Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to School (SRS) are now thrown into one pot called Transportation Alternatives. Historically, Utah has received about $6 million a year in Enhancements money and $2 million in SRS funds. But the Alternatives program also includes several other programs including ones funding scenic roadways and environmental mitigation – projects bicycle advocates don't want to oppose but will have to compete with for funding. And the new combined program provides a reduced funding level overall – $800 million a year nationwide, about one-third less than was available for all the combined programs previously. And to add to the danger, states can opt out of spending half of this money on alternatives and turn it over to motorized transportation programs.

The funding formula allows states to spend half the Alternatives money and the rest they must give to local governments, including metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) where they exist. In Utah, this applies to cities with populations of 50,000 and up. Smaller cities will have to persuade UDOT to give a share of the money. The advantage to this approach is that local officials may be more attuned to where a bike bridge or path is needed than a state transportation department that may concern itself more with cross-state highways. So advocates will have to spend a greater portion of their time talking to mayors and other local officials as opposed to state and federal ones.

The Recreational Trails Program (RTP), the third major source of funding for bike trails and education, gets somewhat better treatment. It is technically thrown into the Alternatives pot with Enhancements and SRS. But the law says that the state must spend about the same amount that it historically has on recreational trails (Utah got almost $1.1 million this year.) But the law comes with an escape clause that would allow the state to shift the money to other transportation programs – but only if the governor personally signs off on it. RTP gets its special protection because the funds come from a dedicated source – the recreational vehicle fuel tax. The Utah Department of Natural Resources administers it.

Utah Governor Gary Herbert indicated he hasn't figured out what to do but that the more recreation advocates he hears from, the more likely he will be to retain the program. His office gave Cycling Utah a statement saying “since the bill was only recently signed, we are still in the process of analyzing the implications. The governor will seek input from all affected agencies prior to making the decision.”

“At this point, we are just studying the new law to see what the implications are for active transportation and for my job,” UDOT Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator Evelyn Tuddenham says. “My job is not going to go away but it may change….It would be nice if they gave us some lead time but that's not how things go with the government.”

And UDOT retains the same level of commitment to bike/ped programs – it just has to spread less federal money around with different rules, she notes. “We always have a lot of competing interests for funding. This puts a new wrinkle into it but it is not anything we haven't had in the past. It's just figuring out what the details are,” Tuddenham adds.

And as of October 1, the law requiring states to maintain a fulltime SRS coordinator vanishes. “It's up in the air at this point” if UDOT will maintain the fulltime position, says Cherissa Wood, Utah's SRS coordinator. “I may not be doing this fulltime.” But she says UDOT is trying to come up with resources to keep the job – and SRS – projects going. Herbert's office adds noncommittally “the governor's office and UDOT will continue to work together to address the all concerns” regarding SRS.

And according to national advocates, agencies like UDOT would do well to obligate as much money appropriated under previous legislation before October 1, when the law changes and it's not clear what rules will apply to distributing it. Nationally, about $300 million in SRS money lies available for spending, according to Deb Hubsmith, founding director of the SRS National Partnership.

The bicycle advocacy groups in Washington, DC — including ABW, the League of American Bicyclists (LAB), America Bikes and others – are planning to provide technical help to state and local advocates to help them in their growing role.

And like many other advocacy organizations are doing these days, Bike Utah's board is discussing what to do at its August meeting. “It's part of our mission to work with all the communities throughout Utah and hope to build advocacy organizations,” Bike Utah Executive Director Scott Lyttle says. With local advocacy increasing in importance, Bike Utah is helping put together a local advocacy group in St. George. “We'll put on a mini-bike summit in St. George September 26….We'll help them any way we can.” Lyttle says.

Meanwhile, the new law does create some new opportunities to advance cycling – if state and local officials and bicycle advocates and their allies know how to take advantage of them.

MAP-21 continues the Congestion Mitigation & Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ), which gives grants to states and metropolitan planning organizations to reduce traffic volume and related smog, which sometimes includes grants to encourage bicycle riding. CMAQ money, for instance, helped build the Murdock Canal Trail in Orem. MAP-21 adds a new type of project eligible for a CMAQ grant: a project that shifts rush hour traffic to other transportation modes. “This should help encourage/justify the use of more CMAQ dollars to bike/ped,” according to Caron Whitaker, campaign director for America Bikes.

But, Whitaker warns, in the name of giving states flexibility – the same rationale for combining the above programs – the new law allows states to transfer half of their CMAQ money to other programs (under the expiring law, they were limited to 21 percent). So bike/ped fans will have to work to ensure that states don't divert the money.

And still another FHWA program is open to funding on- and off-road bicycle projects: the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP). “Traditionally, only a handful of states have used any of this funding on bike/ped but there is now a stronger opportunity to push for this funding,” Whitaker says. The law now requires a representative from the non-motorized sector to participate in creating a state road safety plan.

Another provision in the law says that if states want to put rumble strips or other warning devices along the sides of roadways with HSIP funds, the devices must not impede bicyclists. And states can use HSIP funds to install lights and signs at bicycle crossings. State HSIP programs must include identifying hazards for bicyclists on public roads, “including roadside obstacles, railway-highway crossing needs, and unmarked or poorly marked roads,” the law reads. And the law will require state analyses of safety crash data to include deaths and serious injuries to cyclists, which will provide an improved picture of Utah's most serious bike safety problems.

And, believe it or not, MAP-21 provides a brand new potential source of funding for bicycle infrastructure. It creates a new Pilot Program for Transit-Oriented Development Planning. FHWA will make discretionary grants to states and MPOs, meaning that communities will have to apply – no automatic funding. Grantees must use the money to plan for implementing plans to improve access to transportation hubs. Plans can include increasing access to train and bus depots for bicyclists, such as by building bike stations and parking, and paths leading to the stations.

MAP-21 also requires that all planning organizations – state, metropolitan and rural — include “bicycle transportation facilities” in their intermodal transportation systems. And it says that all users, including bicycle advocates must get “a reasonable opportunity to comment on the transportation plan.”

And from now on, you'll be able to see exactly what bicycle projects UDOT is funding and what share of the transportation budget cycling gets because the law requires states to publish an annual list of all projects they fund, inducing bike projects.

The U.S. Department of Transportation will also have to collect some more helpful information too. The bill requires it to maintain an Intermodal Transportation Database for all modes of transportation, that will include the volume and patterns of bicycle and pedestrian use.

And, the bill provides a potential concern – and an opportunity for bicyclists on federal recreational land (national parks, forests, wildlife preserves, etc.). The bill requires bicyclists to stay off roadways if sidepaths are available within 100 yards of the road and the speed limit equals or exceeds 30 mph and the road is deemed dangerous or unsuitable for bicycling. Congressional staffers put the provision in the bill because some drivers complained of cyclists on a narrow roadway in a national park in Washington, DC. So it's not clear to what degree this will matter. Given that managers get to decide what roads to ban cyclists from “the number of miles affected is probably small,” says Walter Finch, LAB vice president for advocacy.

On the other hand, the bill allows the $300 million a year Federal Lands Transpiration Program money to pay for bicycle facilities and requires consideration of cycling access in transportation plans for federal lands.

Finally, the bill allows Indian governments getting funds under the Tribal Transportation Program to use funds for any bicycle provisions.

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