Stimulus Bill Is a Step Forward for Pedestrians, Cyclists & Cities

Within the $27.5 billion allocated for "highways" in the stimulus bill signed by President Obama yesterday,
there is some good news for pedestrians, cyclists and cities.

I spoke with Michelle Ernst, staff analyst at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, to get a sense of how the new legislation compares to the 2005 federal transportation bill, known as SAFETEA-LU. Ernst points out that federal highway money flows through the Surface Transportation
Program
, which is more flexible than the "highway" label lets on. Compared to SAFETEA-LU, the stimulus bill will nearly double the portion of "highway" funds going to bike and pedestrian projects while sending more money to cities.

Here are the changes Ernst spotted after crunching the numbers:

  • Double the money to bike and pedestrian projects: Under SAFETEA-LU, roughly 1.7 percent of total highway funding was authorized for the Transportation Enhancements program, most of which goes toward bicycle and pedestrian projects. In the stimulus package, that figure has nearly doubled to 3 percent. The new bill also requires states to spend the money on actual Transportation Enhancements, whereas previous transportation bills gave them wiggle room to shift it around to other programs.
  • More money going to cities: Under SAFETEA-LU, 6.5 percent of highway funding was "sub-allocated" directly to large urban areas, defined as metro regions with a population greater than 200,000. In the stimulus bill, large urban areas get 16 percent. This funding will go to agencies that, compared to state DOTs, are more likely to invest in progressive transportation projects.

While these changes represent improvements, even more money should be going to cities. As Brookings notes, the nation’s 100 largest metro areas produce 75 percent of the nation’s GDP. And the glaring omission of any "fix-it-first" language in the final bill will make it easier for some of those sub-allocated funds to be spent on road expansion.

But overall the revised formulas in the stimulus bill mean more money for transit, bike and pedestrian
projects and more funds piped directly to cities. The guaranteed funding for Transportation Enhancements is
something that bicycle advocates, especially, fought to include in the
final bill. Mayors and green transportation experts championed a bigger slice for urban areas, which frees up money for progressive projects. The final stimulus bill reflects these efforts and gives advocates something to build on as Congress gears up for the big transportation re-authorization coming later this year.

  • It’s good to know that not all of the so called “highway” money is actually “highway” money and that some will be going towards biking and pedestrian improvements.

  • jb

    There was never any evidence that the original 1.7 Percent actually did go to cycling and pedestrian use. In fact, there was a lot of talk about communities using the money for other things. Do you or Tri State have any numbers on how much of the targeted funds which were applied for and taken–were actually used for cyclists and ped projects?

  • Michelle Ernst

    JB, good question. There are 12 different project types eligible for TE funds, including things like, “transportation museums” and “scenic highways.” Nationally, almost half of TE funds are used for bike/ped facilities. But a big chunk is used for landscaping too. And certainly, some states are more inclined to spend the funds on the more highway-oriented eligible activities. Even so, TE remains the biggest federal source of bike/ped funding.

    A second problem with the TE program has been that states have under-obligated the funds. Right now the cumulative obligation rate for the program is 80.1%. This isn’t bad, but other programs like the National Highway System program are obligated at closer to 95%. When the obligation rate falls below 90%, it means that the state isn’t prioritizing spending from that program, and is instead shifting obligation authority to other programs.

    That’s one reason I’m excited about the stimulus bill. Because there is no obligation ceiling, the state’s won’t have the ability to shift the funding around. So they’ll have to spend all of the TE funds on TE projects, or lose the money.

  • Michelle Ernst

    JB, incidentally, the Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse is a great resource on the program and publishes a fantastic analysis on how the money is spent. You can find it here: http://www.enhancements.org/download/Spending_Report/TE_Spending_Report_FY07.pdf