UPDATE on TRANSPORTATION ENHANCEMENTS in MASSACHUSETTS: From Hope for Better to Concern for Worse….?

Winning isn’t everything; but being last should be embarrassing.  The Transportation Enhancement (TE) component of the federal Surface Transportation Program (STP) is the major source of federal funding for pedestrian/bicycle facilities and rail-trail conversations.  A recent post pointed out Massachusetts’ worst-in-the-nation status in percent of potential-to-actual money spent on TE projects.

The post applauded the (slightly) simplified application process MassDOT was instituting for TE projects as well as the creation of financial incentives for the state’s 13 regional transportation planning groups (MPOs) to approve TE projects.  It also approvingly noted the criteria that MassDOT was considering using to evaluate TE project spending, giving priority to projects that would connect high-population areas or close gaps in existing bike routes.

(STP requires that TE funds be used for “travel related” projects, usually meaning that they connect discrete destinations rather than serve purely recreational purposes.  Rural or “non-travel” paths are supposed to be funded through the Recreational Trail Program, RTP, another federal program for which Massachusetts pathetically owns the worst-in-the-nation standing in percent of potential-to-actual money spent.)

But I may have spoken too soon.  It now appears that the state will cut a million dollars a year (almost a quarter of the total) from the promised amount, and that already locked-in road project obligations will prevent the incentives from having any effect until at least 2015, if not much later.  In addition, the recommendations submitted by MassDOT’s high-cost consultant about prioritizing projects eligible for the matching money incentives have not been publically issued.  Finally, no action seems to be forthcoming to relieve rail-trail projects from having to use the same expensive and time consuming processes set up to ensure that roads meet national construction standards – despite the fact that these paths will only, and very occasionally, have to carry ambulances, fire vehicles, or even (we should be so lucky) snow plows and street cleaners.

The most tempting way for Massachusetts to “solve” the problem is to change the labeling — to count all sidewalk and bike lane and bike trail work as Transportation Enhancements.   But this would be a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of both federal guidelines and MassDOT’s own principles, dangerously undermining its legislatively-mandated Complete Streets policy. Rather, “regular” STP funds should be used to pay for any project in which the car-carrying pavement is being touched in any way, and every one of those projects should incorporate the maximum feasible accommodations for walking and cycling.

In contrast, TE funds should be reserved for situations where pedestrian and bicycle facilities would simply not be constructed otherwise — mostly meaning (1) adding ped/bike facilities to roads whose car-carrying surfaces are not being repaired or upgraded, (2) off-road paths such as rail-to-trail conversions, and (3) addressing other gaps in equity or support needed for the growth of non-motorized movement.

If the state is to live up to its multi-modal aspirations – and its legal requirements under several state laws and policies – it needs to:

  • More aggressively implement its Complete Streets policies to require every road repair, upgrading, or new construction project to provide the maximum possible ped/bike accommodations (or at least go beyond the standard minimums), even if that means putting some of the space limitation burden on car movement and parking;
  • Fully funding the Recreational Trail Program (rather than diverting about half the potential funds to other purposes);
  • Ensure that at least 10% of Surface Transportation Funds be used for TE-eligible walking or cycling facilities in appropriate situations, by –
    • reserving the money for centralized state programming, or
    • requiring that MPOs spend 10% of the STF money on TE-eligible projects, or
    • Somehow restructuring the incentive program to have a bigger and more immediate impact.

 

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The Back Story

States are allowed to reserve up to 10% of its federal Surface Transportation Program (STP) money for TE projects – either by reserving it for use by the state Department of Transportation or by requiring that it be spent by the regional Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) who set transportation spending priorities in their areas.  Up until now, Massachusetts simply forwarded STP money to its 13 MPOs and allowed the regional groups to do what they wanted – which was mostly road upgrading.  (MassDOT has one or more seats on each of the MPOs, so it does have influence, but it didn’t push very hard to change those priorities.)  As a result, while Massachusetts’ yearly Congressionally-authorized potential TE spending hovers around $12 million, the actual amount “obligated” to be 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 “authorized-to-obligated” annual TE spending in the nation.

It was very good news in 2008 when Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen acknowledged that the state’s TE program needed improvement and announced that he was hiring the Partners Collaborative (for $700,000!) to suggest changes.  The next year, his replacement as Transportation Secretary, James Aliosi, announced at his agency’s annual Moving Together conference in October, 2009 that “MassDOT will increase the statewide annual TE funding allocation pool from the current $0.5 million to $3.5 million in FY2011, $4.0 million FY2012 and $4.5 million in FY2013. MassDOT will further increase the effectiveness of this funding by using it to match funds programmed regionally in order to create incentives for MPOs to program TE projects.”

The match was designed as a “1 for 2” contribution: MassDOT would add another dollar to every two dollars an MPO programmed for TE projects, a 50% bonus.  Unfortunately, the consultants’ suggestions for process reform didn’t go beyond eliminating the expensive and time-consuming double application process – once to be approved as a TE project by the Regional Planning Agency (RPA) and then again as part of the regular road project evaluation via the MPO.  (Some other states are able to approve TE projects in less than two years, a discomforting contrast to the decade-long effort it often takes in the Commonwealth.)

Problems not addressed by the consultants include:

  • the inability to use TE or RTP funds to secure control of rail-trail property;
  • the requirement that localities cover up to 10% of the total cost (the state provides another 10% and the rest is covered by federal money);
  • the dividing up of long corridors into multiple small trail projects each of which requires the same amount of work to get approved;
  • the tendency of MassDOT to require trails to meet too many road-focused design and process-approval requirements even though almost no motorized vehicles will use them;
  • the lack of a method to track progress on previously approved TE projects, some of which have been languishing for years, others of which began with TE funding but shifted (often partly because of frustration with TE delays) to Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality funding (CMAQ) or received a Congressional earmark;
  • and the lack of dedicated staff at the state DOT to move the process forward.

In addition, the consultants updated the state’s 1997 Bicycle Plan to propose a 740-mile, seven-corridor Bay State Greenway (BSG) network consisting of on-road and off-road (multi-use path) facilities, as well identifying about 100 miles of priority segments (the BSG-100).  Supposedly, the BSG-100 segments were selected using the excellent criteria the consultants devised for identifying matching-money-eligible TE projects – although the connection isn’t always obvious.

 

MassDOT Backtracking…

Of course, all this was before Wall Street speculators squandered our national surplus and anti-government conservatives gained veto power over fiscal policy.  As public funds have evaporated, MassDOT has cut back.  At the 2010 Moving Together conference, the next Transportation Department Secretary, Jeffrey Mullan, said that MassDOT would use $2 million of the FY2011 money for a special project in Worcester and $1.5 million for the matching offer, with $3.5 million used for matching in future years – both giving the bonus program a lower first year amount and locking the top level at a million dollars a year below the original promise.

Even more significantly, transportation funding is typically scheduled years in advance, partly because there is such a huge backlog of projects competing for such inadequate amounts of money.  The regional and state-wide Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) list — on which a project must be placed before it can be implemented – is short.  And while it can be amended, there are currently no major pedestrian or bicycle projects included on the short list of pending projects.

There are no federal or state laws that prohibit or inhibit the inclusion of non-auto-centric projects on the state TIP.  To the contrary.  Current law requires that roads built with federal money provide “due consideration” for pedestrians and bicyclists.  Under the Obama Administration and the leadership of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) recently issued a “policy guidance” letter saying this means that “bicyclists and pedestrians should be included as a matter of routine, and the decision to not accommodate them should be the exception rather than the rule.”

Of course, this progressive move provoked a backlash from the highway lobby.  The D.C.-based leaders of AASHTO, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, objected – saying they preferred the old interpretation that only required non-motorized facilities “be considered, where appropriate.”  But there was enough pushback from state transportation officials – 23 of whose departments have adopted Complete Streets policies – that AASHTO lobbyists had to back off (at least until more pro-car Republicans get elected).

 

All Roads Should Be Complete Streets

These retreats and slowdowns raise concern that MassDOT will take the easy, but extremely damaging, way of lifting itself out of the TE performance basement by simply changing its accounting system to define all money spent on planning or constructing sidewalks and bike facilities associated with regular road repair or upgrading as TE expenditures.

Reclassifying sidewalks, traffic calming, road diets, bike lanes and other on-road improvements done as part of a regular road project as TE costs rather than as part of the “regular” STP budget will be a disaster because it will fatally undermine the state’s Complete Streets policies – as well as its GreenDOT commitments and Healthy Transportation Compact mandate.

In the long run, creating a multi-modal road system requires that every road project include the maximum possible pedestrian and bicycle accommodations as a core component of its design and budget.  Every time a street is being improved, or even significantly repaired, the design should automatically include – should prioritize – including lane reductions and narrowing, traffic-calming and intersection-tightening, sidewalk widening and street furniture additions, bike lane, cycle track, side-path, transit amenities, and other facilitators of “active transportation.”

Pulling these elements, or any subset of them, out of the regular design process or the project engineer’s basic responsibilities – which is what will inevitably happen to some degree once they are moved into a different budget category – will fundamentally undermine the state’s commitment to Complete Streets as well as its other goals.

Even if MassDOT is somehow able to dodge this bullet, treating pedestrian and bicycle (and transit) accommodations separately from the “road” violates both the spirit and practice of Complete Streets.  Multi-modal accommodations should be treated as the required starting point for every transportation plan, not “extras” or supplementary additions on the edges of the “real” road.  It should be inconceivable to build a road that only serves cars.  Every road build with Surface Transportation Program (STP) funds should be a Complete Street.

What should Enhancement funds be used for?  TE funds should be reserved for adding pedestrian and bicycling facilities or programs where they wouldn’t otherwise appear:

  • adding sidewalks, crossing bridges, cycle tracks, side-paths, and other ped/bike accommodations in locations where no other major road work is occurring;
  • creating off-road pedestrian, bicycling, or multi-use paths such as rail-to-trail conversions.  (STP/TE rules require these paths to be “travel related” rather than purely recreational, which are supposed to be funded through the Recreational Trail Program, or RTP – another program that Massachusetts pathetically owns the worst-in-the-nation standing in percent of potential-to-actual money spent.)
  • supporting other parts of the “six Es” such as education, encouragement, enforcement, evaluation, and equity.

If the state is to live up to its multi-modal aspirations – and its legal requirements under several state laws and policies – it needs to:

  • More aggressively implement its Complete Streets policies to require every road repair, upgrading, or new construction project to provide the maximum possible ped/bike accommodations (or at least go beyond the standard minimums), even if that means putting some of the space limitation burden on car movement and parking;
  • Fully funding the Recreational Trail Program (rather than diverting about half the potential funds to other purposes);
  • Ensure that at least 10% of Surface Transportation Funds be used for TE-eligible walking or cycling facilities in appropriate situations, by –
    • reserving the money for centralized state programming, or
    • requiring that MPOs spend 10% of the STF money on TE-eligible projects, or
    • Somehow restructuring the incentive program to have a bigger and more immediate impact.

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