TRANSPORTATION ENHANCEMENT IN MASSACHUSETTS – Better, But Not Fixed

It usually takes me about two or three weeks to develop a post – writing out my first impressions, researching missing facts, checking with knowledgeable people, writing a second draft, then tinkering with it over a couple days as I remember things I left out or think of better ways to express my thoughts.  But this very long post on the Transportation Enhancement program has taken over two months.  It’s a labyrinth of complexity. (See the Transportation Enhancement Overview at the end of this post.)  Despite all I’ve learned – particularly from Craig Della Penna whose years of involvement in rail-trail and path development has made him an encyclopedia of knowledge, I’m sure I’ve still missed key points.  So please, if you know something I’ve gotten wrong or left out, leave a comment!

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For many years, Massachusetts has been in the embarrassing position of being last – out of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, DC, and various territories – in its use of Transportation Enhancement (TE) funds, the primary source of federal money for pedestrian and bicycle facilities.  It is true that since 2007 the state has completed 23 shared-use path projects covering nearly 45 miles and we have more rail-trail projects underway than anywhere else in the country (although many of them are small).  Better yet –the Massachusetts’ Department Of Transportation (MassDOT) is now reforming its TE program.  Still, the state remains fourth from the bottom in TE spending per capita on bike and pedestrian projects and absolutely last in the percentage of potential TE funds actually used.  So significant questions remain:

  • Will the state’s TE program changes increase the amount actually spent state-wide on bike/ped facilities?
  • How does TE relate to other sources of funding for non-motorized movement?
  • What other changes might be needed to realize MassDOT’s multi-modal goals?

Some suggested steps forward are listed at the end of this post….

 

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The Federal Program

The Transportation Enhancements component of the Federal transportation funding system provides a total of about $800 million per year nationwide.  TE money can be used for 12 categories of transportation-related projects – from landscaping around roads to historic preservation of transportation building, from tourist centers to archeological research.   TE money can be used to enhance a larger project or for a “stand-alone” facility, including associated planning and design.  Despite its flexibility, according to an analysis of TE spending from 1992 through 2009 by the National Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse (NTEC), more than half of the national TE money (56.4%) is used for bicycle and pedestrian facilities and safety programs.  Nearly 44% of that goes to pedestrian-related projects – the pedestrian-related total climbs to nearly 90% if multi-use paths are included.   However, partly because of the multi-use nature of many projects, TE is also the single largest source of national funding directly focused on bicycle facilities, including on-road facilities, rail-trail conversions, and some off-road trails not associated with former rail road corridors.  (TE use for trails is limited because the law stipulates that bicycle projects – but not any other kind of project! – must be intended “primarily for transportation and not solely for recreation.”)

While Congress provides enormous flexibility on how states use many types of federal funding, including transportation money, they do state that at least “10 percent of the [surface transportation program, STP, the largest federal highway program] funds apportioned to a State…shall only be available for transportation enhancement activities.”  [23 U.S.C. 133(d)(2)]   However, it turns out that having money potentially available for Transportation Enhancement projects (“authorized” by Congress for TE by a state) is not the same as creating a plan for a TE project (“programming” it) or signing contracts to implement those plans (“obligating” it).  (See “TE Program Overview” below.)  As it turns out, Massachusetts actually spends (“obligates”) very little of the potential (“authorized”) TE funds on bike/ped projects.

Massachusetts’ Exceptionalism 

Over the past years, Massachusetts’ used the TE money it did spend in roughly the same manner as most other states, even putting a slightly higher-than-average amount of the obligated total into ped/bike facilities and rail-trail conversion.  However, while the state’s yearly authorized potential TE spending hovers around $12 million, the actual amount spent on TE projects has wavered from almost nothing to about $6 million, usually in the lower half of that range – the lowest percentage of potential-to-actual (“authorized-to-obligated”) annual TE spending in the nation.

(The state does not loose any of the “unobligated” TE money; Massachusetts is not returning anything to the federal highway agency.  The total amount Congress allows states to obligate each year is less than the total it authorizes to be spent, and states are allowed great flexibility in deciding how to allocate its “obligation ceiling” – so the money not used for TE projects is used for other programs, mostly roads.  However, according to TE rules, the state’s cumulative past under-spending has raised its “unobligated balance” – the amount of each current year’s total Surface Transportation Program funds that could theoretically be spent on TE – to around $90 million, meaning that Massachusetts’ actual annual TE spending as a percentage of the potential total is miniscule.)

I suspect that this diversion started because so much of the state’s money was being sucked into efforts to avoid revealing how the decimation of the state’s Transportation planning capacity by post-Dukakis Administrations had allowed Big Dig contractors to keep escalating costs.  But Craig Della Penna suggests another reason, or at least explains the mechanism through which the diversion was implemented:

“The primary reason why these enhancement projects are so hard to get built in Massachusetts is because…the federal money [is sent] to the regions in lump sums, where it directly competes against road and bridge projects.   Almost everywhere else the federal directive to keep a 10% set aside for these projects is honored by reserving those funds for TE purposes. In Massachusetts, these funds are lumped with money for regular road and bridge projects and then the Regional Planning Advisory Group, regional Metropolitan Planning Organization [that actually votes on which projects to fund], and local officials are told to choose their projects.  This allows MassDOT to say ‘Don’t blame us. The regions vote for the projects they want.’”

In fact, Massachusetts is not the only state that funnels federal transportation funds directly to the regional MPOs.  But it is unusual in not requiring that any portion of those funds be used for Enhancement projects.  Furthermore, Massachusetts used to require local TE project proposers to go through a double process of first applying for TE approval and then starting all over again to apply for funding from the combined road and TE budget – an extremely discouraging extra pile of paperwork and meetings that significantly added to the incentive to pursue “regular” road projects over Enhancements.  The federal requirement for a 20% local match made it even harder to get these projects past the wishful-thinking stage, even though the state typically covered half of it.

MassDOT Reforms

To its credit, MassDOT is eliminating the double application process and creating an incentive for the state’s 13 regional Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) to include TE proposals in their regional Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), which is a prerequisite for getting a project included on the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), which then makes the project eligible for funding when it becomes available through the federal transportation funding system.  (Got all that?  I didn’t even mention RPA, RTA, CTAC, MAPC, SAFETEA-LU or STD – oops: that last one is really STP.)   However, it is not clear if TE bike-ped projects will be still required to complete the enormously detailed level of pre-construction design needed for truck-baring highways – a huge and unnecessary burden.

Starting in FY2012, MassDOT will reserve $3.5 million each fiscal year (out of a  possible state TE total of about $12 million) to provide 1-for-2 matching money for TE-eligible projects – meaning that the MPO can only claim its full share of the matching money by “programming” twice as much as the state is offering.  Each MPO’s share of the $3.5 million will be proportional to the region’s overall funding level.  Any statewide TE set-aside funds not claimed by an MPO will be redistributed to other MPOs – which may encourage them to program even more in hopes of picking up any “loose change” that might be left over from other MPO’s inaction.   And the requirement that local project proposers pay for 10% of construction costs has been replaced with a requirement to pay for pre-construction planning and design –partly to avoid projects getting lost in MassDOT’s own severely over-stretched design capabilities.

MassDOT’s priority for approving the use of the matching money for MPO projects is the completion of the Bay State Greenway (BSG), a proposed network of 200 miles of off-road shared-use paths and 540 miles of on-road connections in seven corridors across all parts of the state.  Within that larger vision, priority goes to the BSG100 – a list of 100 miles of off-road paths that MassDOT thinks will “provide the greatest shared use path system connectivity improvements for urban centers…including underserved and environmental justice populations.”  (from MassDOT handout at 2010 “Moving Together” Conference).  First priority for matching money is to complete the BSG100, next is the rest of the BSG’s shared use paths, then other shared-use paths, and finally any other TE-eligible project.

MassDOT is trying to get the most value for our money by emphasizing “pedestrian and bicycle access to and within urban centers” where the greatest potential number of users are located.   This makes sense:  from a taxpayer perspective, the highest priority should be creating bike facilities in areas where they are most likely to be used (for commuting, recreation, or every-day activity); on an economic justice basis priority goes to those low-income areas where investment in bike/ped facilities has been previous lacking.  However, it remains to be seen how strongly MassDOT will enforce this policy, and how it will define “urban centers.”

The impact of changing the requirement for a local match from construction to planning is similarly not clear.  Few municipalities have the funds to pay for speculative designs, particularly for off-road facilities that may not get funded.

Furthermore, it’s unclear if any of these reforms solve the problem created by sending so much of the TE money back to the regional MPOs.  Beyond the state-wide matching money set-aside, there is a potential of up to roughly $8.5 million of annual TE funding by the regions – actually much more because of the state’s huge unobligated balance.  Will the offer of matching funds will be enough to get regional MPOs to give up using their share of the remaining TE money to indulge their traditional fixation on car and truck facilities to support housing and commercial development?

TE and….Complete Streets, Trails, and Greenways 

MassDOT deserves praise for not using its TE matching money for “normal” on-road bike/ped facilities.  These should be included in the regular planning and budget of every road project, as required by the agencies own Complete Streets, Healthy Transportation Compact, Highway Design Guide, and GreenDOT policies.  Even the growing push (at least within the advocacy community) for physically separated bike facilities – buffered bike lanes or cycle tracks – should be dealt with as part of the regular street transportation system.

But if the emphasis is on off-road paths, particularly rail-trails, then it is vital that TE be implemented in coordination with related state programs such as the Chapter 161C§7 and Chapter 40§54A that were designed to preserve rail corridors intact as a public resource for immediate use as natural areas, for near-future use as bike/ped paths, and even for eventual return to railroads.  Chapter 161C/7 gives MassDOT a 90 day right of first refusal for the purchase of any “railroad rights-of-way or related facilities” that a Rail Road wants to sell.  Chapter 40/54A says that anyone who has purchased “any land(s) formerly used as a railroad right-of-way, or any property appurtenant [adjacent] to formerly used railroad company land must first obtain written consent for the issuance of a local building permit from the Secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), after a public hearing at MassDOT.  The request for the public hearing must come from the local building inspector.”

Unfortunately, MassDOT has a very uneven implementation history, with different parts of the agency sometimes working at cross purposes.  In Springfield, for example, one part of the state Transportation Department spent about $100,000 in preliminary design work for the Highland Division Rail Trail.  Then, not once but twice, when the Railroad appropriately informed the state that it wanted to sell short stretches of the corridor, another part of the state DOT knowingly let the land slip into the hands of private developers, thereby either killing the entire project or requiring future reassembly of the parcels through onerous (and expensive) eminent domain takings.  In Harwick, a private landowner was allowed to buy the railroad land behind his house, effectively destroying the chance to create an off-road path from town center to a local school – a potentially important “Safe Routes to School” improvement.  (As Craig Della Penna points out: “What makes this example even more egregious is that this parcel lies within the Mass Central Rail Trail which is described in several state planning documents as the most important corridor to protect in the state.”)  And even more recently, in Boston, former City Councilor John Tobin was allowed to buy the former RR land behind his house, the only place in the entire MBTA system where “adjacents” were allowed to buy surplus corridor space, thereby setting up a land-grab all along the corridor and probably forever destroying the chance to create an off-road path through Hyde Park.  (After missing for several years, MassDOT has recently reposted a list of pending and completed 161C7 and 40/54A applications on its website.)

(It’s wonderful, but slightly pathetic, that Della Penna and other rail-trail supporters had to create a private entity, Central Highlands Conservancy, LLC, to try to buy these parcels in the future to preserve them for public benefit when the state refuses to act.  CHC buys the corridor segment then sells it, with no mark-up, to the local land trust a couple of years later when the Trust can raise the money.  Since 2005 CHC has saved over 12 miles of former railroad corridor that would have been lost, at various times also owning three large former railroad bridges including the last standing, boxed pony truss railroad bridge in southern New England.)

The 161C§7 program is further, perhaps fatally, compromised by the exclusion of utility companies from its jurisdiction – and the utility companies now own more former railroad corridor land than the railroads.  Although a 2009 regulatory change has made it easier for utilities and railroads to allow public use of their land, this exemption needs to be corrected.

Similarly, the Recreational Trail Program (RTP), one of the federal transportation system’s minor “non-core” programs, has not been given the attention or funding it deserves.  These funds do not go through the regional MPOs; they pass through MassDOT’s central office funding-decision process but are then transferred to the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) for actual use.  Massachusetts was given an obligation ceiling of $1.3 million for the program, but despite submission of nearly 60 local requests totally $1.7 million, MassDOT only “programmed” $600,000 – with the rest of the potential funds being diverted to other purposes.  (see TE explainer, below, for how this happens.)  As with Transportation Enhancement Program funds, Massachusetts has the dishonor of programming the lowest percentage of authorized RTP funds of any state in the country over the past 15 years:  we use about 45% of the total, about half of the national average.  The sad reality is that the state’s unprogrammed $600,000 per year would make a gigantic difference to the relatively low-cost trails program but is no more than a small rounding error for big road projects.

Moving Towards A Solution

The “new MassDOT” is trying its best to not only transform its multiple components – Turnpike, Bridge, Highway, Aeronautics, MBTA – into one organization, but also to transform itself from a car-centric highway machine to a multi-modal, context-sensitive livability partner.  It’s a huge task and they deserve our support.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t point out ways they can do better.

* Eliminating the double-application process for TE was a good first step.  Now, the matching money strategy has to be monitored and evaluated to see if it has the desired effect.  It is likely that MassDOT will eventually need to create a 10% TE set-aside for MPO’s – and the sooner that happens the better.

* In addition, municipalities and other TE project sponsors have to be given more help in doing the design work, perhaps from an expanded technical support system operating out of MassDOT or various regional groups.

* And, despite the integration of TE into the regular road-approval process, the absence of fast-moving heavy vehicles on off-road projects should exempt them from the full level of design detail needed for major highway projects.

* As for the planning and construction costs, Massachusetts should emulate other state’s use of federal funds and in-kind resources (such as land and services) to cover the so-called “non-federal share” of project expenses.

* As the first section of the United States to industrialize, New England has the nation’s largest inventory of rail road corridors, many of which are no longer being used for trains but still connect the places where people live, work, and play.  Over 60,000 miles of rail corridor were officially abandoned in New England since the 1960s.  Massachusetts is rich with these resources and consequently has a huge number of rail-trail project proposals.  The majority of these connect village centers, schools, and residential neighborhoods.  They are a foundation for smart growth and public health.  But they’re not getting built.  The actual functioning and impact of the 161C§7, 40§54A, and Recreational Trail programs needs to be reviewed, evaluated, and improved.

* We need a  faster acting, more flexible, and better funded mechanism for purchasing any and all RR corridor land that becomes available.

* We need to make sure that adjacent construction doesn’t impinge on the use of the corridor as a transportation asset – for non-motorized movement in the short run and perhaps for railroads again sometime in the future.

* At a minimum, MassDOT needs to act as a unified agency in pursuit of its stated goals – and hold itself accountable through tracking progress towards measurable targets.

* The development of the Bay State Bicycle Plan and the proposed Bay State Greenway system help provide a coherent overview of the entire vision.  But that vision is meaningless if MassDOT and the regional Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) office don’t use it to connect all the little projects and make sure that we create networks rather than isolated segments.  Having lots of local rail-trail and off-road projects is good; but ending up with disconnected segments is a waste of money.

* One key idea is working towards the creation of a Metro Greenway Network connecting Boston’s neighborhoods and its suburbs, utilizing the existing parks and river banks as its core.  This would be a powerful realization of MassDOT’s goals of investing in the highest use projects.

* Finally, we should build public knowledge of and support for our fabulous potential network of state-wide paths, both off-road paths and their on-road connections.  The Governor and other state officials need to proclaim their support for active transportation.  MassDOT should move more forcefully and speedily to implement its obligations under the Healthy Transportation Compact section of the recent Transportation Reform Act.  And MassDOT, the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), and the Massachusetts’ Office of Travel and Tourism should all find non-intrusive ways to help current efforts to create a cross-the-state bike ride that will highlight state parks and end up connecting with Boston’s Hub On Wheels city-circling bicycle festival.

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TE PROGRAM OVERVIEW:

Congress makes transportation funds available to states by giving them “spending authority” ceilings with suggestions for how it should be divided among a long list of major transportation program categories.  However, Congress then approves a much smaller, lump-sum “obligation ceiling” that is the total amount that states can actually spend in all program categories.  A state can “program” projects in any of the transportation program categories so long as the total for the category does not exceed the authorization ceiling for that program category and the aggregate of all the programs does not exceed the obligation ceiling for the state.  But the more a state spends on any one program, the less of its obligation ceiling it will have available to spend that year on other programs, meaning the less of the other programs’ authorization ceiling will used (“obligated”).

SAFETEA-LU is the current transportation spending authorization law.  It actually expired in federal fiscal year 2009 but has been regularly extended because Congress is unable to pass a replacement bill.  Among SAFETEA-LU’s “core” highway programs are the Surface Transportation Program (STP, which is apportioned about 24% of the total amount – the largest single program), National Highway System (NHS, the second-largest program at about 23%), Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ, about 6%), Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP, which is apportioned about 4%), the Equity Bonus (about 9%), and several others.

Like the preceding federal transportation funding acts, SAFETEA-LU also authorizes a number of much smaller “non-core” programs including Safe Routes to School (SRTS), Recreational Trails, and many others.  Federal money primarily goes to the “federal-aid highways” which are the approximately one-quarter of total road mileage that carries the bulk of car, truck and transit traffic.  However, most programs allow some spending (and some programs, such as SRTS, allow all their spending) to be for “off-system” work on a wide variety of transportation-related projects.

Transportation Enhancements (TE), the major source of funding for distinct bike/ped facilities, is not a separate program but just a 10% component of the Surface Transportation Program.  Actually, the 10% is a minimum, not a maximum:  it is theoretically possible for a state to use the entire Surface Transportation Program amount for TE purposes!   But a state doesn’t have to program or obligate the full 10 percent authorization level for TE – over the past 15 years, Massachusetts used almost its entire obligation ceiling for highways; it has the nation’s lowest percentage of overall funds used for pedestrian and cycling projects

Any unused portion of a state’s annual spending authority within a particular program adds to the state’s cumulative “unobligated balance” for that program – the amount theoretically possible to be spent in future years.  Theoretically, the growing unobligated program balance allows the state to dump large amounts of its future obligation ceiling (the actual amounts available to spend) into the “under spent” program in future years in order to make up for the previous years of neglect.  However, Congress can, and does, pass a “rescission” that cancels some of the cumulative national “unobligated balance.”  States have great flexibility to distribute their recission amounts among the various transportation programs and program components.

Massachusetts used TE for a nationally unique high percentage of the “rescissions” of unobligated funds demanded by the federal government. In FY 2007, for example, while TE was about 1% of overall transportation spending authority levels, Massachusetts used TE for 31% of its required rescission.

Almost every transportation program can be used for ped/bike facilities in some way. For example, under a “complete streets” policy, every road includes bike/ped/transit accommodations which would be paid for out of non-TE Surface Transportation Program funds.  Or, the national Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) could be used.  But, in reality, no state currently spends more than a very small percentage of their overall federal transportation funds on sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic calming, speed bumps, multi-use paths, or safety programs for pedestrians and bicyclists or bicycling facilities.  For example, while almost 13 percent of all traffic deaths involve pedestrians or cyclists, the amount of HSIP funds used to improve conditions for those modes is much lower.  Few states use much non-TE funds for distinct ped/bike facilities.

Nationally, about 55% of TE funds are used for ped/bike purposes, over half of this goes to off-road trails, 14 percent is used for on-road facilities.

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Related Posts:

TRANSPORTATION FUNDING DECISION-MAKING: Four Ways to Fix the MPO Process

THE THREE LEGS OF TRANSPORTATION REFORM: And Why MassDOT has to be Standing on at Least Two of Them

CHANGING THE RULES OF THE ROAD:  National Transportation Reform

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