Senate Transportation Bill Is Good News for Safe Routes to School

Update May 27, 2021: The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed their Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021 on a unanimous 20-0 vote. Congratulations to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy for winning an amendment that adds $200 million per year over 5 years for their new Connecting America's Active Transportation (CAAT) grant program.  The program would provide larger grants to local communities to help them built interconnected biking, walking and rolling networks.

When we factor in the new CAAT funding, plus revised numbers from the bicycle and pedestrian safety funding allocation that is discussed below, we estimate the Senate bill includes nearly $10 billion in funding for walking, biking, and rolling -- of which an estimated $5 billion is new funding.  We will be working with Senate offices to continue to secure a change to require state Safe Routes to School coordinators. Please read on for our original post for everything that is included in the Senate bill.  Next steps are for the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee to consider their version of the bill (expected in June) and for the bills to then move forward in the full House and Senate, either on their own or combined with a larger infrastructure package being negotiated by the White House and Congress.

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The Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) released their transportation bill this past weekend.  On Wednesday, May 26, the Committee will meet to consider the bill and amendments.

Safe Routes Partnership collaborated with the League of American Bicyclists on two central issues - funding for bicycling, walking and rolling infrastructure plus improvements to safety for vulnerable road users. We are pleased to announce that on both counts, we were successful in securing significant wins that, if passed into law, would mean approximately $7 billion -- nearly $3 billion of which would be new -- in federal funding for walking, biking, and rolling over the next five years. 

Assuming the Senate bill passes out of the EPW Committee, it will then await provisions to be added by other Committees and then go to the Senate floor.  The House is expected to act soon as well, meaning it’s possible we could actually have a complete transportation bill becoming law this year.

This is a bipartisan Senate bill and due to the negotiation between Republicans and Democrats, lacks some of the more progressive provisions from President Biden’s American Jobs Plan. You may hear other organizations critical of that.  While we would also like to see more emphasis on equity, climate and multimodal efforts, the Senate bill is a strong and solid bill for walking, rolling, and bicycling.  And with bipartisan support, the Senate bill represents a real chance for significant change in federal transportation policy and funding.

Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP)

The Transportation Alternatives program is responsible for roughly half of all federal transportation dollars that go to bicycling, walking and rolling infrastructure.  Working with our Senate Champions, Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Roger Wicker (R-MS), we were successful in securing:

  • Increased funding that will continue to grow over the life of the bill:  Currently TAP is capped at $850 million a year. The Senate bill would increase funding by 60% to $1.38 billion in 2022, and would increase each year up to $1.49 billion in 2026. Across all five years, it would mean a $2.5 billion increase for sidewalks, bike lanes, Safe Routes to School programming, and trails.

  • Protecting more TAP money:  Under current law, states can transfer up to 50 percent of their Transportation Alternatives dollars out of the program. On average, states transfer roughly 20 percent of funding to other uses, which takes funding away from local governments looking to improve safety. The Senate bill would only allow transfers if a state has held a competition, provided technical assistance to applicants, and did not have enough quality applicants to use all the funding.
  • Help with the Local Match:  Small, rural and low-income communities can be deterred from applying for TAP funds they must cover 20 percent of the project’s cost. Under this bill, states would have more flexibility with matching requirements.  They could use federal safety funds as the local match for projects that improve safety – including all Safe Routes to School projects. In addition, states would also be able to meet the 20 percent match across all TAP projects, meaning that if a larger community provides a higher local match, the state can then allow a lower match to a high-need community.

  • Prioritization of High-Need Communities: The bill requires states to prioritize high-need communities in the application process. States would define what constitues high-need in their state—such as high-poverty schools or low-income or rural communities.

Safe Routes to School

The bill recodifies the Safe Routes to School program so it would be placed in current law and expands it to cover high schools.  It also strengthens the language in the federal Surface Transportation Program and the Highway Safety Improvement Program to make it clear those funds can be used for Safe Routes to School projects—rather than just relying on TAP funding.  We are working with Senate allies and hope to secure an amendment that would require states to have a full-time Safe Routes to School coordinator.

Safety for People Walking, Rolling and Biking

Walking and biking make up 12 percent of transportation trips, but pedestrians and bicyclists make up 20 percent of fatalities. Even though this trend has been worsening for several years, states spend just one percent of their safety dollars on improving safety for people walking, rolling and biking (called “vulnerable users” in the Senate bill). With the leadership of Senator Carper (D-DE), the Senate bill makes a number of changes that would make it safer to walk, bike and roll:

  • Create a Safety Plan:  Every state would be required todo a Vulnerable Road User Safety Assessment to study where and when these fatalities and serious injuries are occurring, including a demographic breakdown to ensure equity considerations are incorporated. States must identify projects and strategies to reduce the risk to people bicycling, walking and rolling.

  • Ensure Funding Goes to Vulnerable User Safety:  States in which vulnerable users represent 15 percent or more of all roadway fatalities would be required to spend 15 percent of their federal Highway Safety Improvement Program dollars on vulnerable user safety.  Based on 2016-2018 fatality rates, 28 states would be required to spend more than $200 million on improvements like sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks, and more.
  • Creating Safe Systems Approaches: The bill overhauls the entire federal safety program to include and consider the safe systems approach, which builds the safety and protection of vulnerable road users into road planning from the start. It also specifically makes Safe Routes to School projects (both infrastructure and programming) eligible for all federal safety funding.
  • Improving Knowledge: Finally, the bill requires the Federal Highway Administration to do additional research to identify infrastructure and policy interventions that can improve safety for vulnerable road users and encourage more bicycling and walking.

What Else is in the bill?

  • Complete Streets:  The bill requires states to develop standards for complete streets, and includes planning funding to do bicycling, walking and complete streets plans.
  • Climate:  The bill is bipartisan and reflects the priorities of both sides.  Even so, it includes significant investment in reducing climate change and will create a new performance measure requiring states to report on efforts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. 
  • Equity:  The bill also integrates equity into many of the programs, such as safety, to ensure better access and safety for communities who have been left out in the past.  It requires that funding to improve air quality is focused on low income communities most affected by poor air quality, such as communities by ports and freight routes.
  • Reconnecting Communities Program:  The bill includes funding to remove highways that divide communities (often low-income or communities of color) and to establish neighborhood connections—which can include walking and biking.
  • Improving Access:  The bill includes a pilot program to help measure the accessibility and connectivity of a community’s transportation. For instance, how easy is it for people to get to every day destinations, whether they bike, walk, drive or take transit. The hope is that this data will help communities plan better, and that the program will lead to better planning.