Federal MAP-21 Transportation Law Begs our Involvement

Senate MAP-21 Vote Map
How the Senate voted on the MAP-21 transportation bill (courtesy of Transportation for America).

Have you followed the Washington, DC travails over federal transportation funding? Did you sidestepped the whole mess because of DC dysfunction? Our leaders couldn’t agree on how to fund big-ticket items like transportation infrastructure over which there is no partisan divide. And on bike & pedestrian measures too fiscally-insignificant to generate rancor, they still fought. The small-government/big-corporation warriors were able to fold dedicated bike & pedestrian funding into general state appropriations and now we’re fighting over funding crumbs. Here’s how you can get involved.

Washington DC: ‘Dysfunction Junction’

First the backstory. We rarely find agreement on anything substantial in America these days, but the appropriation of federal transportation dollars was historically something upon which we could agree. In those days, we spent lavishly on motoring and most everybody seemed satisfied: special interests behind the freeways and bridges like construction firms, concrete suppliers, and trade unionists, celebrated federal largesse. The Chamber of Commerce and the Automobile Association of America rewarded their supporters with private-sector investment to encourage motoring (in exchange for lobbying succor to lawmakers).

Of course local governments loved the largesse too. The federal money that birthed the superslab allowed elected leaders to bring home the bacon. They cut freeway ribbons and used federal funds to eliminate the ‘blight’ of urban material history while paving roads to distant malls. But just like too much bacon is bad for the arteries, all of that federal money for freeways and auto interests but too little for real mobility solutions and healthy communities over time led to sclerotic cities. As our local electeds looked the other way, whole neighborhoods and streetcar lines were literally plowed under.

Downtown Los Angeles freeways map
Downtown Los Angeles is an island ringed by freeways (click for animated map)

The legacy is plainly visible in our region: freeways choke off Downtown Los Angeles from its historically contiguous adjacent neighborhoods and both were left to wither; freeways decimated low-income communities without the political juice to stop the federally-funded bulldozers and nearby commercial corridors fell into economic ruin; and into the chaos stepped redevelopment agencies to create 40-year plans and scrape what was left for discount shopping centers and auto malls. It’s a travesty really – a crime aided and abetted in part by transportation dollars from DC.

How much has changed today? We’re still spending billions on freeway expansion ($1 billion on the 405 alone) and folks in South Pasadena are still battling the 710 freeway extension now four decades later. The forces for auto-centric subsidies and investment are formidable indeed.

The Squeaky Wheel Begs the Grease: New Demands on the DC Dollar

The federal funding consensus that gave us a superslab and the innumerable freeway bypasses that siphoned off economic activity from local areas only began to break down when mass transit and active transportation advocates asserted their own claim to federal surface transportation money. If so much money was available for investments that encouraged motoring, why wasn’t some available for those who bike & walk?

Money for sidewalks, bike improvements, rails-to-trails and the like is mere pennies on the federal mobility dollar. They matter little to the auto clubs and conservative organizations that want money funneled to large corporations simply because they are too small-dollar to matter. What threw those big-business and suburban interests off-balance was the fat thumb of municipal lobbyists on the scale. Cities were seeking greater mass transit funding for existing and future transit systems and, well, there’s not enough money to lavish on wasteful freeways and still keep America moving on urban systems and Amtrak and the like. Now every transportation interest and policy advocacy group is battling for their piece of the federal transportation pie. And cyclists are not happy about losing out.

With so many claims on that transportation dollar, Congress for years simply ducked the issue by extending the expired transportation law, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). The law included provisions for surface transportation (including bicycling and pedestrian facilities) but each extension was another skirmish for ideological and political leverage… and active transportation was repeatedly forced to walk the plank only to be yanked back at the last moment. Is that any way to plan for mobility?

New Law, Different Priorities

MAP-21 funding streams flowchart
MAP-21 reorganizes bike & ped funding into new programs. Why fix what ain’t broken? Good question!

Now a successor transportation law is in place. Called Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (2012). It finally did succeed in forcing defenders of bike & ped funding off the plank. Even if the new law (with a 2-year horizon) didn’t totally eliminate funding for non-motor mobility, the interests behind our auto-centric transportation policies successfully reduced the funding, repackaged it across multiple funding streams (right), and crucially made half of the state-level funding discretionary as to application. Now state legislatures are in charge of appropriating much of the federal funding for non-motor transportation which unduly politicizes it. (More info from the California Department of Transportation on what the law means for California and fact sheets from the FHWA.)

MAP-21 represents the kind of change that conservatives seek: to displace decision-making from Washington to the states and, by locating discretion locally, likely reallocating funds that once supported causes like bike & ped programs to other state needs (and there is no shortage of them as DC support declines across nearly every area except defense & security). What does this mean in real terms for non-motor mobility support? Instead of dedicating a couple of percent of federal transportation investment dollars to bike & ped infrastructure and programs like under SAFETEA-LU, the new law puts federal transportation money into play through a dysfunctional legislature in Sacramento.

That’s bad for cycling advocates because half of California’s shrunken share of federal bike & ped support is now 1) potentially uncoupled from actual bike & ped improvements as  the legislature can choose what to spend it on; and 2) those decisions will be made according to a universe of political concerns outside of bike & ped improvements. The other half of the money goes to metropolitan planning organizations like our region’s SCAG, which may be our best opportunity to focus federal investment on meaningful improvements and programs.

Girding for Battle

As discussed on a recent episode of Bike Talk, Safe Routes to School is an initiative that everybody can embrace because what’s not to like about keeping kids safe? Yet it takes money to make school-proximate improvements and to create programs to educate kids about mobility choices. And historically there’s been DC money behind it.

But we’re reminded by the Safe Routes National Partnership that the all-important dedicated federal funding is now in the hands of the legislature under MAP-21. So local advocacy organizations like the Partnership now have to scramble to save essential programs like Safe Routes to School.

So campaigns are beginning to circulate to urge us to urge our state representatives and transportation agencies to support the kind of local bike & ped investments that make Safe Street work. Have a look at the “Save Funding for Walking, Biking, and Safe Routes to School” campaign supported by the Safe Routes to School National Partnership and many other pro-bike organizations. Read the MAP-21 sign on statement (Better Bike is a signatory) and step up your own correspondence with legislators to remind them that dollar-for-dollar these are the most wise mobility investments we can make.

Supplicating before our local elected leaders in Sacramento for funding is the new normal under Map-21. By design it puts the needs of legislators before the needs of those they represent. But we have no choice here: the most efficient mobility investments necessarily come with a smaller price tag, so there’s less for the rank-and-file laborers, their unions and trade associations to like. And the campaign-financing interest groups that typically grease the federal transportation funding machine finds less to love in them too.

So we have to step up our game because we’re going it alone for bike & ped dollars. We urge you to prick up your ears and tune into the transportation appropriation process. Local bike lanes and safety programs depend on it. Follow the Bike League’s MAP-21 coverage, read about the bill in Transportation for America’s bill explainer, monitor California-specific MAP-21 issues via the Safe Routes National Partnership, and by all means let your legislators know you care about safe routes!