Senate Transportation Bill Takes Big Strides for Biking and Walking

Today the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unveiled its transportation reauthorization legislation, in advance of Committee consideration tomorrow. The bill is bipartisan and being released by the four Committee leaders – Senators Barrasso (R-WY), Carper (D-DE), Capito (R-WV), and Cardin (D-MD). As you may recall from prior blogs, the current transportation law expires a little more than a year from now in September 2020. The federal gas tax is no longer sufficient to pay for transportation, which makes it more challenging to get through the legislative process—so starting early is important.

The Senate bill, America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019 (ATIA), authorizes $287 billion over five years for a range of surface transportation programs. In general, the legislation maintains the existing core transportation programs and adds a number of new initiatives. The Safe Routes Partnership, working together with the League of American Bicyclists, has been pushing for two key asks in the transportation bill:

We are very pleased that the Senate bill makes major moves on both areas, plus it includes a new climate title that should also bring more resources to active transportation and healthy communities and several other interesting provisions. We applaud the Committee leaders and members for prioritizing the safety and accessibility for people walking and biking.

See below for more details on each of the priority areas. (Apologies in advance as this is a very long post, but the federal transportation bill only comes around every 5-6 years, so there is a lot to cover!)  If any changes occur during Committee consideration tomorrow, we will update this blog post. (Note: there were no major changes in our areas; the bill passed out of Committee 21-0).

Transportation Alternatives Program

Thanks to the leadership of Senators Cardin (D-MD) and Wicker (R-MS), the Senate bill includes nearly all our priorities for the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP).

  • Funding for TAP will jump from $850 million to $1.2 billion in the first year (FY21) and then grow by 2 percent each year, getting to $1.299 billion in FY25. This is a 40 percent increase in the first year and $2 billion more than was allocated in the last transportation bill, the FAST Act.
  • Shifts more money to local governments by increasing the proportion of TAP that is allocated by population from 50 percent to 57.5 percent. (We had asked for 66 percent, so this gets us halfway to our goal). States may opt to allocate all TAP funds to local entities beyond just MPOs, including counties.
  • Gives large metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) the ability to obligate TAP projects (i.e. get the projects built) and lets small MPOs compete for TAP funding.
  • Expands eligibility for TAP funding to all nonprofits – not just nonprofits that administer safety programs.
  • Give states more flexibility on the required local match by allowing federal safety money to substitute in as the local match and letting states average the match across all projects, meaning that each individual project wouldn’t have to meet the 20 percent match.
  • Let states use up to 7 percent of TAP funding to support staff and technical assistance, which should help more communities submit successful applications and get projects built more quickly.
  • In addition, the eligibility for Safe Routes to School projects expands from elementary and middle schools to also include high schools.

Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety

Senator Carper (D-DE), who is the lead Democrat on the EPW Committee, pushed hard to ensure that the legislation included in its safety provisions some new funding to improve safety for people walking and biking.

  • The legislation creates a new safety supplemental program focused on improving the safety of all users, with a carveout for vulnerable users (which is people walking or biking or people with disabilities). States and MPOs will get an additional $500 million each year to use on improving safety for all users.
  • For states or MPOs with above average vulnerable user fatalities, half of the new funds must be spent exclusively on improving safety for vulnerable users – things like traffic calming, putting in sidewalks, trails and bike lanes, adding lighting, etc. Given that states are currently only about $20 million of safety money per year on this now, the provision will mean a significant boost in funding to make it safer for people walking and biking in the states and cities where it is most needed.
  • Above average is defined for MPOs as having a vulnerable user fatality rate greater than 1.5 per 100,000 individuals. For states, it is defined as vulnerable user fatalities exceeding 15 percent of all traffic fatalities in the state.
  • States are also encouraged to produce a vulnerable user safety plan assessing the locations of their vulnerable user fatalities, speed limits in the area, and what projects the state has identified to address vulnerable user safety. As an incentive, states that produce this plan then are allowed to use the remaining half of their new safety dollars on a wider range of transportation projects without any required state or local match.
  • States and MPOs that are successful in bringing down their fatalities (or shrinking the rate of growth) are eligible to compete for another $100 million awarded by US Department of Transportation (USDOT), with funding usable for a range of transportation projects.
  • USDOT is also required to create a research plan on roadway designs, speeds, and tools that reduce fatalities and injuries to vulnerable users and increase rates of biking and walking.

Climate Change

The legislation adds a suite of five programs intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, totaling $10 billion over five years. While this is only a fraction of the overall transportation bill, this is the first time that a federal transportation bill would seek to address the role that transportation plays in climate change. The five programs are:

  • Most relevant to biking and walking – $600 million per year will go to states and MPOs for projects that reduce carbon emissions from transportation. This can be used for a range of activities, including transit, biking, and walking. States are also encouraged to develop a carbon reduction plan, and if they do so, they get more flexibility in how half of the new funding can be used. States and MPOs that reduce carbon emissions (or slow the rate of growth) can compete for an additional $100 million each year awarded by the US Department of Transportation.
  • $1 billion over five years will provide grants to create charging networks for alternative fuels vehicles (electric, hydrogen, and natural gas).
  • $40 million per year will provide congestion relief grants to states and large cities to reduce single occupancy car trips (through carpooling, tolling, commuter transit, etc.) during the most congested times.
  • $1 billion per year will help states and local governments build transportation systems that are more resilient to extreme weather and natural disasters and improve evacuation routes.
  • $370 million over 5 years is focused on reducing truck emissions at ports through reduction in idling and electrification of ports and vehicles.

Other Relevant Provisions

The Senate bill includes a number of other interesting provisions and new programs that will be beneficial to local governments and community organizations looking to create healthy, safe communities.

  • States and MPOs must use at least 2.5 percent of their planning dollars for at least one of the following: adopting Complete Streets standards or policies or developing Complete Streets prioritization plans, active transportation plans, transit access plans, transit-oriented development plans, or regional intercity rail plans.
  • A new Community Connectivity pilot program provides competitive grant awards to help communities plan for or tear down highways that displaced and divided communities, most often to the detriment of communities of color. While small ($120 million over 5 years), this program is the first time the federal transportation bill has recognized the harm that was done to many cities by building highways through formerly vibrant neighborhoods and seeks to address it by replacing the highways with boulevards friendly to active transportation and transit connections, parks, and public spaces.
  • The bill includes a $1 million per year pilot program to help communities plan and train to use bikes in providing emergency relief after natural disasters. This was an idea the League of American Bicyclists pushed for.
  • A new pilot program called the COMMUTE Act is included that would give new accessibility data to several states and MPOs to help them calculate how potential transportation investments would improve access to jobs and services. This type of data could help transportation agencies consider how transportation projects connect people to where they need to go using all kinds of modes including biking and walking, rather than simply counting how many cars pass through an area. This is a provision that Transportation for America and the League of American Bicyclists have been supporting.
  • A new $3.2 billion bridge repair grant program includes “benefits to non-vehicular and public transportation users” as one of the many criteria for USDOT to consider when selecting grantees.
  • A new $5 million-per-year pilot program is established to provide competitive grants to communities that want to install bollards between sidewalks or trails and roadways to protect pedestrians from acts of terrorism in areas used by high volumes of pedestrians.
  • USDOT is required to create a Center of Excellence to collect data and fund research on the impact of automated vehicles and new mobility (i.e. docked and dockless bikes and scooters and ridesharing) on land use, urban design, transportation, real estate, equity, and municipal budgets.

What’s Next?

We have a long way to go and a lot of negotiation before any of these provisions can become law. Assuming the bill passes the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (Note: it did on July 30), it must then make its way through the Senate Commerce Committee, which will add provisions on rail and some safety programs, Senate Banking Committee, which handles transit, and the Senate Finance Committee, which must figure out how to pay for the bill. The House is running on a slower timeframe, and isn’t likely to have its transportation bill ready until early next year. Then the House and Senate would have to negotiate the differences between their two bills before it could become law.

There is a lot of work to do over the next fourteen months. But, this is a great start to the legislative process with significant benefits for biking and walking. This makes us optimistic that the next transportation law will include significant strides forward for Safe Routes to School, biking, walking, and healthy communities.