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Washington Bicycling Hub - Fall '04
Use of Transportation $ For Biking Improving (Slightly)
Rail-Trails, Ped/Bike Paths Get Most, Varies by State/Region/Town
By Charles Pekow
Mr. Pekow, a seasoned Washington, DC journalist, provides Bikexchange.com with continuing coverage of national legislative news on bicycling issues.
Delivery of Transportation Enhancements (TE) projects is improving but still being plagued by the same old delays that have always slowed the process down. Or so concludes
Transportation Enhancements: Summary of Nationwide Spending as of 2003, the latest annual report
on the program done by the National Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse (NTEC).
The report concludes “the lower obligation and reimbursement rates, relative to other federal-aid highway programs, indicate that state departments of transportation, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) divisions, and project sponsors face obstacles to actually implementing (TE) projects. State-specific hurdles, whether they be political support or sponsor preparedness, should be identified and remedied to more efficiently deliver (TE) projects to communities.” Communities and government officials are still struggling with unfamiliarity with non-auto projects, environmental reviews, raising the required 20% match, following accounting rules, etc.
NTEC documented 18,127 projects programmed through TE funds since the program started in 1992. States also reported planning an additional 868 projects through 2003. NTEC acknowledges that couldn’t collect all the data because the following states didn’t report to it: Delaware, Hawaii, Kansas, Minnesota, North Carolina, Utah and New Mexico. Some states also didn’t provide all historic information. NTEC also acknowledges that some states have funded bicycle projects with other money, which it doesn’t count in these figures.
How one measures progress depends in part on how one counts. NTEC reports that state transportation departments obligated $589.7 million, or 96% of their 2003 funds. This means they
chose specific projects and committed to spending the money. And it means they’re getting better, as states have obligated 74.4% of all funds they got in 12 years of TE, up from the 72.2% cumulative rate a year ago.
But obligation rates vary considerably across the country, with the District of Columbia having obligated all its funds and Massachusetts only 37%. “Obligation rates provide a perspective on the effectiveness of the system that each state has in place to move projects from vision to reality,” NTEC explains.
Another way of looking at progress is the amount programmed, or designated for a specific project but not officially committed. States, of course, have programmed more of their cumulative total than they’ve written checks out for, 93.3% of $6.14 billion they received (based on incomplete figures).
States naturally are slower in reimbursing grantees for projects, having actually paid only $3.62 billion, or 55% of the available money. This figure, naturally, will always lag the others. Unlike most federal grant programs, grantees don’t get TE funds upfront – they have to spend their own cash and in-kind match first. Then the state reimburses them for their efforts.
TE provides the largest source of federal money for bicycle projects, a set-aside of 10% of federal Surface Transportation Program money. States can give grants for a variety of purposes that enhance their major surface transportation projects (such as highways). According to NTEC-compiled figures showing that states spent most of the TE funds on projects designed to directly help cyclists. Bicycle/pedestrian facilities (largely but not entirely off-road) accounted for $2.759 billion, or 44.9% of the programmed funds, while another $541 million (8.8%) went for separately-counted rail-trail projects.
States awarded a relatively small amount ($15 million) for bicycle/pedestrian safety education. Most of the rest of the money went for projects that indirectly can assist bicyclists, such as landscaping, restoring historic bridges, removing unsightly billboards, supporting transportation museums, etc. Rail-trail conversions received an average of $436,000, more than most TE grants, as they take longer and are more complex than most projects, NTEC surmises.
But bicyclists in some states may be getting shortchanged because a provision in the law allows states to transfer up to 25% of their TE money to highway and other surface transportation projects. In 2003, eight states transferred a total of $13 million from TE to other programs, but it’s not clear what they used it for (maybe even bicycle projects). “Transfers are…a very small percentage of available funds and do not significantly detract from the funding of TE activities,” NTEC concludes.
Expect to see more projects. States told NTEC they had programmed 489 bike/ped construction projects, 25 rail-trail conversions and eight safety programs for future years.
Most states are doing well finding the required match: the average was 28% and some states even require a larger match than the federal minimum.
But the future amount of funding and rules remained in limbo as of late September. Congress still had not completed a required reauthorization bill for TE, which operated all of FY 04 under a series of temporary extensions of surface transportation law that officially expired a year ago. It’s not clear at this writing if the program will go through all of FY 05 on another temporary extension. And this probably means no funding increases or improvements in the rules.
But the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $1.25 million for the Department of Transportation to study pedestrian and bicycle safety.
So what exactly do state and local officials think about when they choose how to use TE or other federal funds for transportation projects? For one thing, going through their own planning procedures, obviously. Then they have to think about the rules of the federal funding sources. Next, of course, required public participation, which can include public comments, hearings and in some cases voter approval via referenda.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), formerly the General Accounting Office, studied what governments go through when pondering their options for spending federally-funded surface transportation dollars. GAO released a report, Surface Transportation: Many Factors Affect Investment Decisions, (available at www.gao.gov). The study doesn’t discuss bicycling specifically but still gives some insight into the process that funds them.
In fact, GAO investigators reported that officials said that federal surface transportation money tends to be slanted toward highways and mass transit, as opposed to bicycling. They also cited lack of space as a factor that leads to decisions to preserve and maintain existing roadways, rather than build new ones that might include a bicycle element.
Federal law requires public input and access to technical and policy information during planning. States and metropolitan planning agencies also must establish a process to collect and analyze data to set transportation priorities in 20-year plans. They have to think about everything from compliance with federal environmental laws to recreational needs, connecting modes (such as bike-to-rail), economic impact of plans, etc.
Federal law allows plenty of leeway in how to evaluate the factors. Federal guidance has suggested cost-benefit analyses to determine trade-offs between options on energy use, environmental quality, costs, etc. But this approach presents problems. “One challenge is that while benefit-cost analysis evaluates the net benefits of projects, it does not usually consider the distribution of benefits across locations or populations or other equity concerns that may exist with transportation investment projects.” A highway project, for instance, could cut motorists commute time but not help bicyclists.
Also FHWA notes that cost-benefit analyses may tend to favor urban projects over rural ones because they affect more people and get more use for the same bucks. But the political process often pushes states to spread the money around to different regions anyway. And the Transportation Research Board has noted that while governments have been trying to estimate demand for various options for years, no consensus has emerged on which methods to gauge demand work best.
Finally, clout matters and bicycle groups will benefit from friends in high places. Large and influential agencies, such as state transportation departments, large local governments and large transit agencies wield a lot of power. “This uneven influence may mean that a project’s priority can be determined by which agency sponsors the project,” GAO warned.
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