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A Metra train passes over a busy portion of the Kennedy Expressway. Photo taken from Grand Avenue. 

The Senate and House of Representatives finished their conference on Friday, June 29, to finalize the new surface transportation bill. The bill is responsible for making it legal for the federal government to collect gas taxes and manage the Highway Trust Fund and its Mass Transit Account, disbursing revenues to road, transit, railroad, water, bicycling, and pedestrian transportation infrastructure projects. The previous bill, known as SAFETEA-LU, was extended for 1,000 days since its original expiration in 2009. The new bill is known as MAP-21 and will expire September 30, 2014, for a total duration of 27 months. President Obama is expected to sign the bill, H.R. 4348, on Friday.

There are many changes, good and bad, between the two bills that have transit, bicycling, and pedestrian advocates disappointed.

What’s changed

Transportation Alternatives

Three formerly independent programs that funded bicycling and walking infrastructure are now combined with roadway activities into “Transportation Alternatives” (TA). Instead of having three dedicated funds, grant applicants will have a wider field for competition: sidewalks may compete with the construction of left-turn lanes. The three programs are Safe Routes To School, Transportation Enhancements, and Recreational Trails.

50% of the funding for these programs will be sub-allocated to metropolitan planning organizations (MPO, like the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning) to distribute in their districts, and to rural communities (to be distributed by the state DOT). MAP-21 allows state departments of transportation to direct the other 50% of the TA funding to any highway project, or distribute it as part of a statewide grant program to eligible TA projects.

The kind of projects eligible for TA funds has changed. All kinds favorable to walking and biking infrastructure have remained; some categories have been removed or renamed, and this one has been added:

Planning, designing, or constructing boulevards, and other roadways largely in the right-of-way of former Interstate System roads or other divided highways.

The kinds of organizations that can apply for TA funds has also changed. Schools, school districts, regional transportation authorities (like RTA), and local transit agencies (like CTA), among other types, can apply to the state or MPO for project funding.

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Kinzie Street bike lane photo by Nicholas Norman. 

Bus rapid transit (BRT)

Changes and additions in the new bill will make it easier for transit agencies like Pace and Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) to obtain federal funding for a bigger variety of bus route projects, including those that stand to increase capacity on key routes. The following is excerpted from The Transport Politic:

The New Starts program, in the past reserved to new rail or bus lines operating in dedicated rights-of-way in new corridors, will be expanded to include “Core Capacity Improvement Projects” that significantly improving existing infrastructure while increasing capacity on the existing line by 10% or more.

Corridor-Based BRT will lack a separate right of way. As the bill describes, however, these BRT programs will involve “a substantial investment in a defined corridor as demonstrated by features that emulate the services provided by rail… including defined stations; traffic signal priority for public transportation vehicles; short headway bidirectional services for a substantial part of weekdays and weekend days.”

Fixed Guideway BRT, on the other hand, means a bus-based project that includes all of the features of the Corridor-Based BRT, plus “the majority of the project operates in a separated right-of-way dedicated for public transportation use during peak periods.”

These programs increase the opportunities for the CTA to seek federal funding for the Central Loop and Ashland-Western BRT projects.

Other changes

  • “Overall funding is set at $109 billion, or $54.6 billion annually. Annual funding for the last reauthorization, 2005’s  SAFETEA-LU, was $50.1 billion.” From Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC)
  • Diverts $18.8 billion from the General Fund. This is because the gas tax will not collect enough to cover the expenses in the bill; the gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993.
  • “For the first time ever the law requires the establishment of national goals, performance measures, and accountability in planning and funding transportation investments.” (MPC)

Toll highways

The bill does not reauthorize the Express Lanes Demonstration program, a program that would fund the addition of high-occupancy tolling (HOT) lanes (or conversion of non-tolled lanes to HOT lanes). These lanes give people the option to pay to bypass traffic congestion, with the price commensurate with the level of traffic congestion. They also provide a congestion-free lane for transit buses (providing similar benefits to Pace’s bus on shoulders project). Highways are extremely expensive and tolling is a good way to collect user fees (gas taxes are not). Read more about HOT lanes on Steven Can Plan.

The Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program may be able to fund such a project. For reference, CMAQ has funded a majority of the costs for new bikeways in the City of Chicago. CMAQ does not pay for maintenance of projects; that and other aspects of MAP-21 and prior surface transportation bills shows that our national priorities lie in building new instead of maintaining what we have.

Further reading

America Bikes, a coalition of non-profit bicycling advocacy organizations in Washington, D.C., has the best analysis of the new transportation bill.

The Transport Politic has good analysis of the transit-oriented portions of the bill as well as the legislative, policy, and funding implications (for example, is it bad that so much of transportation is increasingly funded by income taxes to make up for gas tax shortfalls?).

Read the bill. Follow the bill’s signing status on GovTrack. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) posted a cost analysis of MAP-21.

Thank you to The Transport Politic, Streetsblog, Transportation 4 America, and Metropolitan Planning Council for their reporting.

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