Yesterday, the U.S. Senate passed, with broad bipartisan support (74-22), a two-year transportation reauthorization bill that included critical aspects of both amendments that Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) and partners sought!
The second manager’s amendment, released Tuesday, included a modified version of the Klobuchar/Burr/Shaheen/Risch amendment to restore the Recreational Trails Program (RTP). When combined with the earlier bill draft, which included a modified version of the Cardin/Cochran amendment to provide greater local access and control over Transportation Enhancements (TE) and Safe Routes to School (SRTS) funds, the Senate bill now provides a viable way forward on core trail, bicycling and walking programs. RTC organized and delivered national organizational sign-on letters in support of the Klobuchar et al. and the Cardin/Cochran amendments.
This is indeed a reason to celebrate, as we notified many individual RTC supporters on Tuesday. The original Senate Environment and Public Works Committee bill had merely found a different way than the House to undermine the integrity of our programs. When the committee bill passed in November, we were not entirely optimistic we could dig so far out of the hole in which we found ourselves, but you rose to the occasion.
However, the Senate bill still contains problematic provisions that were not possible to change given the political climate and array of decision-makers involved. Because you and your organizations will be leaders in making the most of the opportunities presented by this bill (and avoiding its pitfalls) if it should be enacted, I’ll share with you our initial analysis of pros and cons of its funding provisions.
Basics: TE, SRTS and RTP are consolidated into an ‘Additional Activities’ pot under the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Program. There is dedicated funding for this pot that will be distributed to projects based on merit. Half of the funds available for TE and SRTS will be allocated based on population, and half to any area of a state regardless of population size.
Pros of the Senate bill as passed: Compared to the committee bill, there will be more opportunities to continue to build trail systems and other facilities that are needed to make it safe and convenient to walk and bicycle because:
- Decisions about how to allocate funds will be made by competitive grants focused on applications from local governments and other local entities responsible for eligible projects. Competitive grants are already the norm, so the real innovation is to ensure local access to funds given that expensive new eligibilities in the bill that states are obligated to do by regulation (e.g., noise walls and wetland mitigation) or necessity (routine maintenance) would have proven irresistible to state DOTs, especially given tight budgets.
- Metropolitan areas with more than 200,000 residents will select their own projects. Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) in these areas will be sub-allocated a share of total ‘Additional Activities’ funds equal to half of their proportion of a state’s overall population. Not every MPO will share our priorities, and it will likely be harder to track how funds are spent, but on balance we believe that it will help substantially to move these decisions closer to communities where the benefits of investing in trail, bicycling and walking networks have been most obvious.
- Transfer of funds out of the pot that supports these programs to other transportation projects would be limited to about 10 percent of those funds. The committee bill passed in November would have allowed the entire pot to be transferred to other uses. The advance was to base transfers on the ‘Additional Activities’ pot alone rather than CMAQ. The transfer formula in the bill is 25 percent of the amount over the 1997 TE baseline, which amounts to less than 10 percent at present levels of spending, but would rise with any increase in the pot.
- The amendments increase the likelihood that dollars will be spent on eligible activities. The allocation section of the bill says that funds “shall be obligated,” creating the expectation that states and MPOs should not sit on their funds.
- Changes made Tuesday restore the integrity of the RTP by reinstating dedicated funding at $85 million per year and the requirement that each state must establish an advisory committee for the program composed of both motorized and non-motorized trail representatives and agree to a formula for dispersing funds of 30 percent motorized, 30 percent non-motorized, and 40 percent shared use. A new caveat allows a governor to opt his/her state out of the program.
Cons of the Senate bill as passed:
- Less money: There is a range of interpretations of how much money the Senate provides for ‘Additional Activities,' with 2009 levels of TE spending at one end and a level just short of status quo for TE, SRTS and RTP on the other end. Even if it were status quo, there would be two downsides: (a) other transportation modes were increased to compensate for inflation since SAFETEA-LU, but not active transportation; and (b) active transportation programs are cut off from larger highway formulas that have been the source of the rise in TE spending during the past 20 years. In any case, the Senate bill is light years ahead of the House bill, which had no dedicated funding.
- New expensive eligibilities that are inconsistent with the purposes of these programs: TE provides for active transportation and improves overall transportation systems by enhancing environmental and historical transportation assets, but the new eligibilities under the TE definition offer nothing beyond status quo conditions. The hope is that newly empowered local entities will significantly blunt the impact of these additions by choosing the system improvements that have been the hallmark of these programs, but undoubtedly some of them will choose to use the new road eligibility and/or to cover routine expenses such as mowing.
- While the transfer clause was substantially improved, the Senate bill retains a new provision allowing states to flex money to other uses if unobligated balances exceed 150 percent of a year’s apportionment. In other words, if a state fails to spend the money such that a year and a half unused balance is accumulated, the money can be moved without a rescission. Mitigating this inclusion are sub-allocation, the “shall obligate” language, and steps elsewhere in the bill to reduce the amount of funds that are authorized but not able to be spent. Nonetheless, some perceive that this provision creates a perverse incentive to sit on ‘Additional Activities’ funds.
- Identity crisis? Some have seen political vulnerability in the language of “enhancements,” but that’s nothing compared to the meaninglessness of the term ‘Additional Activities,’ which was a purposeful jab on the part of opponents to dilute the clarity and cache of TE, SRTS and RTP.
All eyes now turn to the House of Representatives. The process in the House has been opaque. With collapse of H.R. 7, Republican leadership is seeking a 218 vote majority for a bill that maintains some of their key priorities. Revealing a schism between Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Mica (R-Fla.), Rep. Schuster (R-Pa.) is scaring up votes from the caucus. With little more than two weeks left before expiration of SAFETEA-LU and the gas tax, the House needs to move quickly with either a variant on H.R. 7 that can garner more votes or something much closer to the Senate bill. House leaders favor the former, but the latter would be more likely to result in a bill that can pass both chambers. The House is likely to seek an extension and, if they do, the duration may be telling. A short extension may indicate that they are serious about buying a little time to complete reauthorization. A longer extension may indicate that they can’t see their way to a resolution.
For now, this is a day to celebrate. Thank you for your hard work to salvage a positive approach to trail and active transportation programs in the Senate. We’ll be in touch about next steps.
Vice President of Policy and Trail Development
P.S. The bill also has a Complete Streets provision, a compromise related to bikes on park roads, and relevant planning requirements, but this initial analysis is limited to funding rather than broader policies.