Making Sense of Infrastructure Stimulus, Earmarks, and Surface Transportation Reauthorization

For national news followers, it’s hard to open the paper (err - scroll Twitter) and not be bombarded with headlines about President Biden’s plans for infrastructure stimulus and the re-emergence of earmarks after a decade-long moratorium. We are paying close attention to these developments, however, our organization’s federal advocacy efforts remain focused on the reauthorization of a surface transportation bill.

Designated Projects, AKA Earmarks

After a decade-long moratorium on earmarks, targeted federal funding for projects specified by members of Congress, they are making a return under a new name, “designated projects”. Advocates for walking, bicycling, and Safe Routes to School can submit requests to their members of Congress for specific projects before the April 9, 2021 deadline. Note that in order for surface transportation projects to be competitive, they must be included in a statewide transportation improvement plan (STIP) or transportation improvement plan (TIP). For more information, review the instruction booklet here or visit your member of Congress’s website.

The American Jobs Plan

The Biden Administration’s “infrastructure stimulus plan”, the American Jobs Plan, takes a broad perspective on what is needed to rebuild and reinvest in American infrastructure than what is traditionally considered infrastructure – highways, bridges, and other components of our transportation system. It seeks to invest in a more holistic definition of what the United States needs to not only bounce back from this economic downturn, but to thrive and prosper well into the future.

There’s a lot to like in the Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan. Of note for bicycle and pedestrian advocates, the proposal includes $20 billion for a Safe Streets for All program intended to reduce traffic crashes and fatalities, especially for nonmotorists. Additionally, it includes $20 billion for projects in communities harmed by historic policy and funding decisions, for example, communities separated by the development of the highway system. In a broader sense, the proposal may bring needed jobs and investments, but on its own, it is not a silver bullet for improving safe, equitable connected transportation networks for people walking and bicycling. To achieve safer, more equitable, more connected networks for people to walk and bike safely throughout their communities, we need both funding and policy change. To achieve needed policy change and increased funding, we remain focused on surface transportation reauthorization.

Surface Transportation Reauthorization

On the surface transportation reauthorization front, things are moving along in both chambers of Congress. As a reminder, the last surface transportation bill was the FAST Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2015 and extended by Congress in 2020 for one year. The extension is set to expire at the end September 2021.  Why is our focus on surface transportation reauthorization? It is through this type of bill that Congress can both affect funding levels and change public policy. If we want to meaningfully improve conditions for people walking, rolling, and biking to and from schools and throughout their communities, an influx of cash alone will not achieve that. Read up on our policy priorities for surface transportation reauthorization here.

In the Senate, we are grateful to Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) for re-introducing S. 614, “A bill to amend title 23, United States Code, to improve the transportation alternatives program, and for other purposes.” This bill builds on a legislation that unanimously passed the bipartisan Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in 2019. Like its companion in the House (HR463), this bill aims to make improvements to the popular and impactful Transportation Alternatives Program, the primary source of federal funds for walking, biking, and Safe Routes to School. This bill sets out to:

  • Tie funding for transportation alternatives set-aside at 10% of STBG, which would allow for growth over time
  • Shift more money to local governments – 66% of TAP will be allocated by population (up from 50%) giving local governments and MPOs the ability to decide what projects are meaningful to them
  • Prevent states from transferring money out of TAP unless they can show that they made funds available through a competition, provided TA, and no suitable projects were submitted
  • Give MPOs authority to obligate funds for projects they select
  • Give states flexibility on local match by allowing federal safety money to substitute in for local match and letting the states average the match across projects, so each individual project would not have to meet the 20% local match threshold
  • Require that the competitive process consider the location and impact on high-need communities, as defined by the state department of transportation, in project selection. Suggestions for “high need” include low-income, transit-dependent, rural, or other indicators of high-need.

We thank our key partner, the League of American Bicyclists, and the following organizations who have endorsed this bill: America Walks, American Heart Association, American Planning Association, American Public Health Association, American Society of Landscape Architects, Association of State Public Health Nutritionists, Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals, Healthy Schools Campaign, National Association of Chronic Disease Directors, National Recreation and Park Association, People for Bikes, Rails to Trails Conservancy, Safe Kids Worldwide, Safe States Alliance, Sierra Club, The Trust for Public Land, Transportation for America, Trust for America's Health, and YMCA of the USA.