Funding active transportation: Utah County does it better

By Chad Mullins

Finding adequate sources of funding to develop a regional active transportation network is a major challenge. As mentioned in the previous blog, our neighbors in Utah County provide an excellent example of what vision and effort can accomplish through regional and local community partnerships. Go on-line (Interactive Trails Map) to see the extensive active transportation network they are developing. Better yet, take your bike on Front Runner and ride on their trails and active transportation infrastructure.

There will be a Grand Opening celebration on May 18th of the Murdock Canal Trail, a 17-mile addition to Utah County’s existing trail system. The paved trail passes through seven Utah County cities, connecting the Provo River Trail with the Lehi Front Runner station, and will eventually connect the Jordan River Parkway. Maintenance will be year-round for walking, jogging, cycling, skateboarding, and equestrian use.

Examining the details of Utah County’s active transportation program is worthwhile because they have charged miles ahead of the rest of the state in developing a network of bicycle trails, shared pathways and bike lanes to accommodate those who walk and ride bikes for recreation and commuting. Utah County's progress and active transportation funding are issues which should be explored in the Round Table discussion with Utah transportation policy makers at the Summit. And, you can hear more about what is happening in Utah County in a break-out session at the Utah Bike Summit on April 26th.

Register for the Bike Summit Now

Almost fifteen years ago, the mayors of Utah County asked the Mountainland Association of Governments (MAG), the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) responsible for long-range transportation planning for Summit, Utah and Wasatch Counties, to improve the region’s bicycle and pedestrian facilities. The MAG Council created a full-time position at MAG to develop bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure. With consistent support and encouragement from local political leadership, MAG has developed excellent partnerships with UDOT’s Region 3; Utah, Wasatch and Summit Counties, and the municipalities in their region.

Working together to create a balanced transportation system, they have developed a network of active transportation routes: consisting of multi-use paths, bike lanes, improved shoulders safe for people riding bikes, and sidewalks. All are based upon comprehensive local bicycle master plans and good design to promote safe and comfortable walking and riding. MAG provided 90% of the matched funding to the counties and cities to develop their bike/pedestrian master plans. As a result the communities have benefited from hundreds of thousands of biking and walking trips. The communities have responded with strong local support for additional active transportation improvements.

For over a decade the Mountainlands Association of Governments (MAG), has heavily invested their Federal transportation funding in active transportation, using both Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) Program and Surface Transportation Program (STP) funds. MAG has been allocating 30 to 40% of their CMAQ funds to active transportation projects for many years. UDOT’s Region 3 has not built a new state highway in Utah County without bicycle facilities for over five years.

The situation in the Wasatch Front is quite different. The Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC), the Wasatch Front MPO equivalent of MAG, recently made their recommendations for the allocation of Federal transportation funds for the CMAQ Program and Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), both programs can be used for active transportation. Of the $7,044,733 of CMAQ funds allocated for 2019, no bicycle infrastructure projects were recommended for the Salt Lake region. There were over $24 million dollars of project requests for the $5 million dollars of available new funding. CMAQ funding for the years prior to 2019 had already been allocated.

One has to question the allocation process used for the Wasatch Front. Obviously, the current criteria used to score and prioritize CMAQ projects do not favor active transportation. Transit (UTA) is a major recipient of CMAQ funding in the Wasatch Front. Although, public transit and active transportation are complementary, transit is not active transportation. More political support for active transportation in the Wasatch Front will be required to change the allocation of CMAQ funding, so that a significant percentage of CMAQ funds will be allocated to active transportation projects as in Utah County.

The primary source of Federal funding for active transportation in the Wasatch Front comes from the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), a much smaller funding source, which was created by Congress under the new Federal transportation bill. Congress combined a number of programs used to fund active transportation projects into TAP, and reduced the overall funding. WFRC had $12 million dollars in TAP project requests for only $900,000 in available funding for Salt Lake County. Because of the limited amount of funding, WFRC’s active transportation project funding recommendations were for small community projects.

An equal amount of TAP funding will be allocated by UDOT, which was distributed to the regions. The regions are in the initial stages of developing their allocation process.

The first round of TAP project recommendations should be a learning experience from which we can draw some conclusions and make adjustments. The TAP program objectives should be revisited and reviewed to determine if the objectives are being met. The UCATS study may be very helpful in this regard and hopefully the study's recommendations and route prioritizations can be utilized in future evaluations of TAP projects.

The TAP project scoring criteria and weighting provide an opportunity to guide and influence the active transportation planning process. The greatest challenge is developing a regional network of active transportation routes. Connectivity and continuity is required to develop safe and comfortable bicycling routes on key corridors. This requires extensive coordination at the local level. Significant scoring bonus points should be given to projects with multiple sponsors (multiple municipalities and agencies) working together, and/or combining their projects to achieve a greater regional impact.

Another issue has to do with the effectiveness of funding small projects with TAP funding. Federal funding requirements must be met for TAP projects, which put small projects at an economic disadvantage. If municipalities and counties were encouraged to identify active transportation corridors, linking and combining their projects, it would be a far more efficient use of Federal funds. Project scoring should be heavily weighted towards connecting active transportation corridors, and municipalities should be incentivized to combine their projects.

In addition to more funding, better regional coordination, encouragement and oversight are needed to assist local communities in connecting their active transportation corridors and filling gaps, in order to duplicate the success Utah County is achieving in developing a regional network.

We are making progress. Public officials and transportation agencies at all levels are demonstrating an increasing awareness and support for active transportation, but there is still major work to be done to secure adequate sources of funding.

It will take more political support from the elected city and county officials who sit on the Wasatch Front Regional Council to change the historical patterns of funding allocation. We need to encourage our neighborhood, community and town councils and elected representatives to champion funding for active transportation.

Important rides:
2013 Utah Bike Summit: Keep Utah Rolling! – Friday, April 26 at the University of Utah – Guest House: This is an opportunity to show Utah legislators that we are an important constituency. Registration is open for the 2013 summit, which features nationally recognized advocate, Tim Blumenthal, from Bikes Belong and an incredible program that includes Utah elected officials and local transportation policy makers. UTA has generously donated free Summit Guest Passes for all UTA transit (FrontRunner, TRAX and all bus) on April 26th. Attendees are encouraged to ride transit or bikes to the summit, but must register by April 19 to receive the UTA Guest Pass by mail or make arrangements to pick-up the pass.
Open Streets Salt Lake City – Ci.SLC.lovia – Saturday, May 4 – 300 South: Salt Lake City will host Utah's first Open Streets event during Bike Month. The event is free and open to the public, we encourage everyone to come down and experience SLC downtown streets without motorized vehicles.

The more bicyclists on the street, the safer the streets become for everyone

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