Last Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) introduced the INVEST in America Act of 2021 (INVEST Act). The committee has written a transformative transportation bill the likes of which we have not seen in a generation.
For the first time in federal law, this bill recognizes active transportation as mainstream mobility that requires a comprehensive policy approach and provides for investments necessary to create, connect and maintain these vital community assets—spaces that are essential to safe active transportation and recreation in cities, towns and suburbs nationwide.
In the bill, which provides $547 billion for surface transportation over five years, the need for well-funded and strategically designed, dedicated funding programs is well recognized, along with broad eligibility for active transportation within other programs based upon the ability of this infrastructure to deliver on articulated goals. Accountability standards aligned with consistent metrics around safety, climate, and access to jobs, transit and essential services determine whether projects will be eligible for those additional opportunities. Active transportation is suffused throughout the bill to an unprecedented degree.
Here is a topline analysis of what’s included for active transportation.
For several years, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has prioritized passage of a trio of dedicated active transportation funding bills in this federal surface transportation reauthorization. This approach has been designed to grow and improve delivery of two core funding programs while supplementing them with a third new program that provides much larger grants focused on the connectivity of trails, sidewalks and bike lanes. The existing core programs—Transportation Alternatives and Recreational Trails—were started by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) 30 years ago and will gain new vitality with this bill. The latter is included in the INVEST Act as Active Transportation Connectivity Grants, the next essential step in active transportation policy to meet burgeoning demand for functional systems for those on foot, bicycle, wheelchair and shared micromobility.
The INVEST Act addresses three critical needs:
- Doubling of dedicated investment in active transportation and recreation: The total dedicated funding for active transportation included in the bill grows to $1.75 billion per year, delivering on our reauthorization goal of doubling the current annual dedicated investment of $850 million per year. This level is necessary to meet growing demand and revive the buying power of programs undercut by funding changes in MAP-21 (the 2012 reauthorization) and years of inflation. Transportation Alternatives and the Recreational Trails Program each grow by 75% in this bill. Transportation Alternatives increases to $1.353 billion over the life of the bill and Recreational Trails to $147 million per year. The new Active Transportation Connectivity Grants are funded at $250 million per year.
- Addition of focused funding: It is not enough just to deliver more money through existing channels. The active transportation movement has matured, and communities across the country now have compelling plans to build functional networks connecting trails and other active transportation facilities into low-stress routes to everyday destinations and neighboring communities. This evolution demands that we provide a way to obtain strategically targeted resources that are well beyond the size and scope that current programs can practically deliver. That is why inclusion of Active Transportation Connectivity Grants in the INVEST Act (section 1309) is groundbreaking.
The INVEST Act launches these grants at $250 million per year from the Highway Trust Fund. This annual funding commitment will demonstrate the power of this new approach and begin to address pent-up demand. It falls short of the $500 million per year in the Connecting America’s Active Transportation System Act (HR 2991), a figure that reflects a level of need that RTC and our partners have documented. However, the most important thing in the reauthorization is to establish this new program at a scope that will enable success as there will be other short and long-term opportunities to grow the funding level.
- Integrity of dedicated funding: Also important to the existing core programs are policy reforms to ensure that the integrity of those programs is protected. Most notable in this regard is inclusion in T&I’s bill of a requirement that states demonstrate that they have run credible grant processes and found a lack of demand before they are allowed to transfer Transportation Alternatives funds to other purposes. RTC recently reported on widespread use by many states of transfer provisions to undercut the intended purposes of the program. We welcome the T&I committee’s attempt to restrict this practice.
Establishing New Standards for 21st-Century
What sets the INVEST Act apart as a force for broad transportation reform is its clear articulation of overall goals for our nation’s transportation system that meet critical societal challenges of our time, along with an effort to establish real accountability to advance those goals.
The committee’s approach takes seriously the need to reckon with transportation’s role in significant challenges facing communities across the country:
- Climate change: As the nation’s top source of CO2 emissions, transportation must contribute to reducing pollution, including taking steps to reduce reliance on driving.
- Safety: Pedestrian and bicycle fatalities relentlessly rose over the last decade. This trend must be reversed.
- Access: The point of transportation is to enable all Americans to access the places that they need to go, regardless of whether they drive. The bill requires examining the needs for safe, reliable and convenient access to jobs, services and other destinations for all users. Transportation plans must demonstrate improved access.
- Equity: Transportation policy has divided Americans and directly disadvantaged Black, Brown and low-income neighborhoods. This requires more equitable decision-making going forward as well as mitigating measures for past injustices.
The national goals and performance management measures section (1403) requires the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish new performance measures for greenhouse gases and transportation system access. Further, the bill reflects recognition that active transportation has an essential role to play in delivering on these goals.
The INVEST Act includes safety measures for “vulnerable road users” throughout. In the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP, section 1209), any state with a high level of serious bicycle and pedestrian injuries and fatalities per capita is required to undertake projects from Surface Transportation Project funds to address identified safety issues. Highway safety plans must include vulnerable road user safety assessments, including corridors of high risk to pedestrians and cyclists, along with programs, projects and strategies to reduce risk. The bill adopts a safe systems approach in which human error is acknowledged and fatalities are treated as preventable.
Vision Zero plans (section 1601) to significantly reduce or eliminate serious injuries and fatalities in no less than 20 years. Vision zero plans may include complete streets prioritization plans with specific projects to “create a connected network of active transportation facilities, including sidewalks, bikeways, or pedestrian and bicycle trails, to connect communities and provide safe, reliable, affordable and convenient access to employment, housing and services.” This is an important change because it defines complete streets to be comprehensive, emphasizing the importance of connected, accessible walking and biking infrastructure on roads and off.
Trails, Walking and Biking Is Eligible and Competitive
Biking and walking infrastructure has long been eligible for funding from certain large, flexible federal programs—such as Surface Transportation Block Grants—but active transportation has rarely been prioritized to receive such funding. Through goal setting, performance standards and other reforms, the INVEST Act provides reasons to be optimistic that active transportation advocates will have the opportunity to begin to chip away at those established norms of prioritization. Further, many new programs and policies in the bill suggest the priorities ought to shift in ways that make active transportation more competitive.
- A new carbon reduction program (section 1213) for states to fund greenhouse gas reductions using apportioned dollars. An annual progress report on CO2 emissions per capita will be used to give states making the biggest reductions flexibility on meeting federal shares and transfers, while requiring states making the least progress to dedicate funds to reduce emissions. In addition, community climate innovation grants (section 1304) directly support local entities.
- Community transportation investment grants (section 1312) are intended to enable local entities of all sizes to fund safety, state of good repair, access and environmental quality improvements.
- A Metro Performance Program (section 1305) funds locally selected projects for the highest-performing tier of metropolitan planning organizations.
- Gridlock reduction grants (section 1306) for large metropolitan areas explicitly include multimodal solutions and travel demand management.
- A new discretionary grant program (section 1311) is intended to reconnect neighborhoods divided by transportation projects.
Member Designated Projects
The T&I bill establishes FY 2022 as a transition year in which $5.662 billion in Member Designated Projects (earmarks) will be added to existing programs while new program guidance is defined. Earmarks in the T&I bill include a large component of trail, bicycling and walking investments, with many demonstrating strong demand for enhanced connectivity of low-stress walking and biking networks.
RTC staff conducted an analysis of all earmark requests submitted for projects that include an active transportation component and confirmed that nearly 70% were included in the bill, totaling $1,041,988,601.
Other Notable Policy Changes in the INVEST Act
- Section 1202 addresses increasing the resiliency of transportation assets, requiring planners to develop strategies to mitigate and reduce climate impacts. This could create opportunities to support trails designed or redesigned to mitigate climate-related flooding.
- Section 1204 provides grants for infrastructure to reduce trespasser fatalities and injuries at railroad crossings or along railroad rights-of-way. It will be important to engage in implementation of this provision as it could expand opportunities for rail-with-trail projects if properly interpreted.
- The portion of Transportation Alternatives funding that is sub-allocated to local government will increase from 50% to 66% over the life of the bill (section 1206). Sub-allocated funds have higher obligation rates than those administered by the states.
- Shared micromobility is eligible for Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program funding (section 1210). Micromobility devices are defined and allowed to use bike infrastructure, consistent with state and local regulations (section 1216).
- For the Recreational Trails Program, the definition of e-bikes is aligned with 23 USC 217 to reduce user conflicts, and volunteers and nonprofits can continue to carry out recreational trails projects (section 1214).
- Safe Routes to School (section 1215) is codified and extended to high schools and is eligible for funding under Transportation Alternatives and HSIP.
- Safe Streets for All (section 1218) sets aside funds to construct complete streets and other safety measures for vulnerable road users.
- The Federal Lands Transportation Program and the Federal Lands Access Program are increased by about half, to $555 million and $345 million, respectively, through Highway Trust Fund appropriations.
- Requires that the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices be revised more often, every three years, and requires a safe systems approach to setting speed limits (section 1602).
Tomorrow, the bill will go into markup and be voted on by committee—and we expect it to move forward with few, if any, changes. At that point, we will be counting on all of you to help us ensure that it stays intact as it moves through the next steps in Congress.
When the House bill goes to conference alongside the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021, we will be looking to combine an optimal mix of dedicated active-transportation investments included by both chambers with the forward-looking overall transportation reforms of the T&I committee’s bill.