New Layer of Red Tape From FHWA Threatens to Delay NYC Bike Projects

The Federal Highway Administration is seeking to impose a new layer of bureaucratic review on New York City bike projects, which could significantly delay the implementation of street redesigns that have proven to reduce traffic injuries and deaths.

The Federal Highway Administration wants to impose a level of bureaucratic review that could delay projects like the Kent Avenue bike lane by one to two years. Photo: NYC DOT

According to a source in city government, FHWA wants the New York State DOT to review each individual NYC bike project design before releasing federal funds for implementation. This would be a major departure from the existing practice in which the state DOT approves a package of bike projects for funding simultaneously, without performing design reviews of each one. If the state DOT starts reviewing every single NYC bike project going forward, it could dramatically slow down the addition of new bike lanes, delaying each by up to two years, the city official said.

Currently, NYC DOT pays for many of its bike projects using funds from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program. These CMAQ grants have laid the foundation for the city’s bike network expansion over the past six years. The federal grants first pass through the state DOT, which then releases the funds to the city.

According to the state DOT, the state has to review federally-funded projects classified as capital construction. NYC bikeways are implemented primarily through contracts that involve striping but not capital construction, and the state DOT confirmed that for years most bike lanes have been built without being classified as “construction projects.” FHWA now wants to reclassify bike lanes, triggering the more time-consuming review procedure.

While the impetus to reclassify bike lanes appears to have originated with state DOT sometime earlier this year, the agency has since backed away from the idea. The feds remain intent on pursuing the much more time-consuming process, however, with FHWA saying it is applying review protocols established by the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act.

The city official says the review procedure is flexible, and there is no need to reclassify bike lanes. The current, streamlined review procedure has led to the implementation of projects all over the city with demonstrable safety benefits, routinely lowering the rate of traffic injuries by more than 25 percent [PDF].

Street safety advocates are alarmed at the prospect of a much lengthier bureaucratic review for New York City bike improvements. “The current process is working well, and has dramatically improved safety for bikers, pedestrians and motorists alike,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “Such onerous red tape would add cost and delay and would effectively put lives in jeopardy while making it virtually impossible for Mayor-elect de Blasio to achieve his goal of increasing bicycling and reducing fatalities and injuries.”

The American transportation agency with the most extensive track record of installing bike lanes on urban streets is NYC DOT, and the safety record of the agency’s bike projects is unequivocally positive. One reason that New York City has been able to deploy bike projects as quickly as it has is the lack of interference from agencies higher up the funding pyramid. Other cities haven’t been so fortunate.

FHWA is seeking to impose needless oversight that will tie up sustainable transportation projects in the name of “environmental review” — how perverse is that?

  • J

    Why now? What is the impetus behind this change? Were bike lanes actually contributing to a degraded environment? I highly doubt it, so this screams dirty back room politics. Can we FOIL some emails and memos leading to this change? I wouldn’t be surprised of the trail of dirt leads back to 9 PPW.

    Also, maybe we should have an environmental review on the effects of adding more review for bike lanes.

  • Aaron M. Renn

    More and more, environmental activists are being hoist with their own petard. They’ve encouraged more and more rules and reviews to let them stop development and roads they don’t like. They’ve never hesitated to use scorched earth litigation tactics against things they don’t like. Well, now the chickens are coming home to roost as in the California HSR, Hollywood rezoning, and federal red tape causing problems for bike lanes and transit. This is the system that has been promoted for 3-4 decades now by activists. It takes a lot of chutzpah to complain about it when their own pet projects suffer collateral damage. Particularly when there’s no calls for any fundamental change to the current regulatory system.

  • Bullshit. Tell us exactly how the people implementing street reconfigurations in New York City today are in any way linked to the lawyers who wrote NEPA 40 years ago.

  • We have a FOIA request pending with FHWA and will be starting up another with state DOT if this situation persists.

  • Also, where the enviro review process is most onerous, transit/bike/urbanism advocates are the people fighting hardest for reform. How else do you explain the major changes to California’s environmental review process that were enacted this year? Give me a fucking break.

  • Maris

    Alright – who do we need to write about righting this wrong?

  • Clarke

    Surely this includes funds to compensate the families of those killed on routes that are delayed in years of red tape?

  • Reader

    Aaron is also conflating “environmental activists” with people who are advocating for safe and reliable transportation. They’re not always the same people. Total straw-man argument.

  • J

    Awesome. You guy are on top of it!

  • Ian Turner

    Would this change apply to efforts to remove bike lanes, also?

  • Aaron M. Renn

    Has Streetsblog come out in favor of regulatory reform that would make it easier to build highways? It’s possible but if so I missed it.

  • Bolwerk

    It’s true there are environmental advocates who misguidedly helped create or at least assented the regulatory morass, but it remains that applying the same regulations and red tape to bike, bus, and rail lines that you apply to highways is supremely idiotic. Highways *should* have an onerous review process, and it must be realized that there *will* be lots of negative externalities no matter what with a new highway.

    Other modes have few or no negative externalities and don’t should not need to be held to the same standards.

  • JK

    Where is NYC congressional reps? Be great to do an organized campaign here. Jerry Nadler has been great fighting idiotic stuff like this and it wouldn’t be hard for him to get a letter from the NYC reps in the house to USDOT and FHWA.

    As to comparing highways to bike projects, it’s simply silly to compare projects that typically cost a few hundred thousand with road projects that cost tens or hundreds of millions. And, at least in the NYC metro area there is no enviro review for road projects that may cost millions and add capacity via turning lanes, replacement of shoulders with traffic lanes, peak hour removal of parking lanes etc. I for one would welcome the red tape of an EIS in exchange for a $100m bike project.

  • Spare me the rhetorical nonsense Aaron. Streetsblog has written about numerous ways that the environmental review process hinders transportation and planning efforts that are beneficial for the environment. Highways are a different beast.

  • thomas040

    Keep us updated on this. This would be a major setback, so I’m holding my breath that it will turn out OK and that new bike lanes will keep coming in a steady stream going forward.

  • J

    Seriously? In terms of transportation, the existing environmental review process is weighted heavily in favor of auto-mobility. We spend billions of dollars each year examining LOS, documenting tiny changes in automobile delay, but we pay only cursory attention to conditions for all other modes. For walking, we mainly document if there will actually be crush conditions, which only really ever occur in the densest parts of the biggest cities. Same for transit, where performance is only examined in a cursory manner, looking at stairwells and elevator capacities, not how well-suited the environment and service is to supporting these modes. Actual impacts on conditions for cycling are almost entirely absent from these analyses.

    So what do you want, Aaron? Should we be advocating to push this auto-centric process even more towards expanding roadways?

  • JamesR

    Correct. The timing of this at such a vulnerable moment – just as the NYCDOT administrative team who did so much to improve our streets is leaving, and a new administration and team are incoming – sets off all sorts of red flags.

  • andrelot

    I think this article is too focused on the “red tape” aspect, and is forgetting the upside: with individual project reviews, substandard/bad design projects will not move on, promoting an overall improvement on quality of new bike path projects.

  • andrelot

    The majority of resources on capital projects that involve construction don’t go on measuring LOS or things like that. At all. Assessing impacts on water and habitat fragmentation, alongside study of impact of earthworks if any, take up most resources. Endangered species and protected lands can also pile up a lot of requirements.

  • yodasws

    Another reason for the City of New York to secede from the State of New York.

  • J

    I don’t think these proposed regulations will saddle bike lanes with expensive studies on their impacts on water and habitat fragmentation, endangered species and protected lands. They will, however, add auto-centric LOS studies that take time and money, and these studies heavily favor auto-mobility. Not sure I understand your point.

  • J

    Do any of the regulations even truly consider multi-modal mobility? Expanding a deeply flawed, incredibly auto-centric set of regulations does not result in better projects, it just results in fewer projects, implemented more slowly.

    If we were to actually trying to address the regulatory flaws (as California is trying to do) while expanding regulation, then I’d agree with you, but this is solely about more regulation, not better regulation.

  • andrelot

    My point is that LOS studies are cheap, easy to collect data for (compared to field observation of fauna or construction of scale models of river meanders), and thus not really something to worry about. Many bike lane projects are done on a haphazard manner, almost as a paint job instead of a transportation infrastructure capital project (which is how they should be treated, avoiding absurdities like bike lanes that suddenly end on a concrete barrier or disconnected networks of bike paths).

    So an unintended positive effect would be having the entities building bike lanes to treat this infrastructure for bikes more seriously.

  • Miles Bader

    Do they actually document this sort of backroom deal though…?

  • J

    While I agree that bike lanes should be better funded and better planned, in this instance, I highly doubt this change is furthering either case (see my comment below).

  • Some Ideas

    Would the author clarify which part of FHWA is requesting the change in review procedure…the FHWA Division Office for New York state, or staff in a prgram office at FHWA Headquarters in Washington, DC? Division Office interpretation can vary significantly state-to-state and even with the headquarters program offices.

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