Analysis of Transportation Bill "MAP-21"
The Impacts of MAP-21 on Trails, Walking and Bicycling Across America
On June 29, the U.S. Congress passed a new 27-month federal transportation bill. The bad news is that, compared to current law, the bill takes a real step backwards. That is truly disappointing, coming at a time when we sorely need forward-looking 21st century transportation policy that provides balanced transportation choices and improves public health and safety, the quality of our environment and the livability of our communities. Instead, the bill makes federal transportation policy more highway-centric, focusing on new road capacity and increasing the federal share of such projects from 80 percent to 95 percent, wreaks havoc on environmental reviews which have provided a degree of public accountability, and reduces investment in active transportation (details below).
The consolation is that it could have been significantly worse for trails and active transportation, and we retain a solid foundation from which to continue moving forward. The core programs that support trails, bicycling and walking are seriously compromised, but not undone.
When the Senate bill passed in March, there was a sense of relief because a local access amendment sponsored by Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) had mitigated some of the bill’s problematic features, and a bipartisan amendment led by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) had preserved the Recreational Trails Program (RTP). Thankfully, those changes were essentially preserved. The steps that take us backward in the final bill are a combination of unmitigated problems from the original Senate Environment and Public Works bill plus two critical changes made in conference: (1) reduction in the amount of money dedicated to trails, walking and bicycling, and (2) an opt-out provision that states can invoke for up to half the money.
Key features of the newly passed bill from the perspective of trails, walking and bicycling are:
• The three core trail and active transportation programs from SAFETEA-LU—Transportation Enhancements (TE), Safe Routes to School (SRTS) and the RTP—are merged under a new Transportation Alternatives program. The term Transportation Enhancements is replaced by "Transportation Alternatives." This is confusing because the same term is used to refer to both TE and the overall consolidated pot of activities.
• The eligibilities that correlate to TE and SRTS are forced to compete for severely limited dollars against expensive new eligibilities, including some road projects (in the right-of-way of former Interstate System routes or other divided highways) and an expanded definition of environmental mitigation projects. TE and SRTS activities are also treated as projects on a federal-aid highway, raising process concerns.
• Eligible activities under the definition of “Transportation Alternatives” encompass most of what we now know as TE. However, pedestrian and bicycle safety and educational programs, transportation museums, scenic or historic easements and scenic or historic highway programs, including tourist and welcome centers, are no longer eligible. Beautification is no longer part of the definition, so activities like street art are probably not eligible, but wildflowers for erosion control still qualify under vegetation management. SRTS is an eligible activity, but the concept is broadened in the definition section to “safe routes for non-drivers.” This analysis by the National Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse provides more information on eligibility changes.
• The initial amount of funds available to these combined activities is reduced by nearly 30 percent from current levels. However, the amount available nationally is based on a percentage (two percent) of the amounts authorized from the Highway Trust Fund (minus the Mass Transit Account), estimated at $808.76 million for fiscal year 2013. If the Trust Fund goes up, so does the funding for Transportation Alternatives. While the Senate bill had tied funding to a flat amount (fiscal year 2009 TE apportionment) that was higher than the final bill but lower than status quo for the three core programs, re-establishing a tie to Trust Fund levels could prove superior to the Senate approach over time.
• The bill greatly increases the ability of states to transfer funds away from these core programs. This is arguably the most problematic outcome. Preventing states from opting out is likely to become a focal point for trail, walking and bicycling advocates going forward. There are three ways that transfers out of Transportation Alternatives could happen:
1. States may transfer the half of the Transportation Alternatives pot that is not subject to distribution by population to a wide range of other highway programs (more on that concept later).
2. Unobligated balances of more than one year of Transportation Alternatives funding may be flexed to the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program. This idea came from the Senate bill, but the trigger point for the balance was lowered in conference from 150 percent of reserved funding for the year to 100 percent. The name of the game is ‘use it or lose it’ unless your state would prefer to leave the money in Transportation Alternatives.
3. In a state of emergency, states can transfer Transportation Alternatives funding to rebuild highways, but it must be repaid if the state receives reimbursement.
• The Cardin/Cochran amendment to provide for greater local access to the funds was largely included in the final bill. Consequently, half the funds in Transportation Alternatives are subject to geographic distribution within a state based on population. Of that half, the portion that goes to larger communities (regions of 200,000+) is sub-allocated to metropolitan planning organizations for project selection. Nationally, over 70 percent of the population lives in such communities, so about 35 percent of the overall funds will be sub-allocated. This will vary greatly by state. The portion of the geographic funds that are not sub-allocated is to be awarded through a competitive grant process administered by the state but focused on local needs. The same is true of the half of the Transportation Alternatives pot that is not subject to distribution by population. However, these funds may be subject to transfers by the state as noted above.
• The Klobuchar/Risch amendment protected RTP’s dedicated $85 million off the top of the Transportation Alternatives pot based upon gas taxes paid by motorized trail users. This program supports both non-motorized and motorized trails. RTP provides valuable organizational structure to support state trail efforts. States can opt out of this activity.
• Pending administrative guidance, SRTS coordinators are apparently eligible but not required. Infrastructure and non-infrastructure projects are eligible.
• While there is no longer a set-aside for TE in the Surface Transportation Program (STP), there is eligibility in STP for bicycle transportation, pedestrian walkways, recreational trails and other Transportation Alternatives. This maintains flexibility for states to prioritize active transportation to backfill lost resources or pursue ambitious projects, but competition will be stiffer than ever because STP now has broader responsibilities, such as bridge repair, without proportionate increases in funding.
• Walking and bicycling also are eligible for funding under the Highway Safety Improvement Program and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program.
• A new Complete Streets policy that was in the Senate bill to require routine accommodation of all roadway users was not included in the final bill. A pre-existing requirement to consider all users when replacing a bridge was not deleted.
• Gulf restoration funds authorized by MAP-21 could be used to build trails in coastal state parks or for the benefit of the economy, such as tourism, in states affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
While MAP-21 represents a disappointing step backward, there is ample room to continue working to advance trails and active transportation in our communities and states, and for our movement to emerge stronger than ever.