Senate Bill Inadequately Funds Walking, Biking, but Provides Innovative Financing Options

Posted 06/23/15 by Kevin Mills in Policy

Photo courtesy Wally Gobetz | CC by 2.0

Update (6/24/15): The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted without dissent today to pass the DRIVE Act (S. 1647). The next step is for other committees to complete their portions of the reauthorization bill. Most notably, the Senate Finance Committee needs to find funding to pay for the bill. Sen. Cardin did not offer his amendment to increase TAP funding, but he vowed to use his Finance Committee seat to pursue additional revenue that could enable more robust funding. The committee bill included a technical correction to clarify that states would no longer be able to transfer TAP funds to other uses such as highways, rolling back a damaging feature of current law.

On June 24, 2015, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will consider a bill that would freeze funding for the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP)—the biggest source of funding for walking and biking—for the next six years at a level wholly inadequate to meet burgeoning demand. The bill also would make low-interest loans available for smaller active-transportation projects.

The Committee plans to vote on the DRIVE Act (Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act), a bill that lays out the funding for the nation’s transportation infrastructure through 2021. Under the bill, TAP would be set at a fixed dollar amount of $850 million for the next six years rather than at the current rate of 2 percent of the overall highway account. Since the bill slates highway programs to rise more than 20 percent, funding TAP at a flat rate would reduce available money for active transportation by $130 million in 2021.

As written, the bill would discontinue the 25-year-old practice of tying TAP funding to highway accounts as a percentage. We don’t object to standing on our own, but we think the Senate is misguided to allow the buying power of TAP to drop over time, especially after cutting TAP funding by a third in 2012 despite skyrocketing demand for safe walking and biking routes.     

To counteract these misplaced priorities, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) will introduce an amendment tomorrow that would return funding for TAP, Recreational Trails and Safe Routes to School to prior levels, and index their funding to inflation. Please express your support for Cardin Amendment #1 if your senator serves on the committee.

Fortunately, there is some good news. The bill includes a provision sought by RTC to make innovative low-interest financing (TIFIA) more feasible for trail and active-transportation networks. Specifically, the bill would reduce the minimum eligible project size to $10 million from $50 million for projects involving local governments, make it easier to aggregate projects to meet that threshold and allow state infrastructure banks to use TIFIA to make accessible loans. 

The most notable policy changes to TAP involve money passed through to regions and localities. TAP funds would be allocated in proportion to population, and urban areas would be given more control over project selection. In addition, regions would be allowed to pass-through funds to localities to implement their own competitive TAP processes.

While stagnant TAP funding is disappointing, the bill makes clear that senators seeking to eliminate the program lack a constituency. The tireless efforts of our members and supporters have been instrumental in preserving this crucial program, and working together going forward, we have the opportunity to increase the priority given to trail and active-transportation networks.               

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