Assessing USDOT's Final Guidance on Transportation Alternatives

Margo PedrosoJust shy of one year since the passage of the new transportation law, MAP-21, the US Department of Transportation has issued the final guidance and a new Q&A on the Transportation Alternatives program (TAP). This guidance provides USDOT’s interpretation and rules for how the program can be implemented by state DOTs and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). The Safe Routes to School National Partnership has carefully reviewed the new guidance, and it’s very similar to the interim guidance issued in October 2012 with only a few changes and additional clarifications and explanations. Below you will find our summary of the key points in the guidance. * If you need a refresher on the Transportation Alternatives program, please see our past blogs on how the Transportation Alternatives program works and funding levels.

Take Action: Advocates—now that the final guidance has been published, there is no reason for MPOs and state DOTs to delay in setting their TAP processes and running competitions for these programs. Please reach out to your states and large MPOs (population of 200,000 or more) to find out when and how funding will be made available. In the next month, we will be partnering with Advocacy Advance to produce materials to help you with this, including a sample MPO application and more details on how states are implementing TAP (particularly specific to Safe Routes to School). We will also be co-hosting a webinar next month to go over these resources and answer your questions. So stay tuned for more information!

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Key Points of Transportation Alternatives Final Guidance

Safe Routes to School Match

The final guidance confirms that Safe Routes to School projects funded under MAP-21 through TAP now require applicants (or state DOTs) to make up 20 percent of the project costs. Please see our November blog for full details on the match issue. The Safe Routes to School National Partnership is attempting to secure a future legislative solution to this issue.

Safe Routes to School Coordinators

The final guidance reiterates that state Safe Routes to School coordinators are eligible to be paid from Transportation Alternatives funds. We urge you to advocate for your DOT to retain its Safe Routes to School coordinator. In addition, the final guidance allows other, non-staff administrative costs associated with Safe Routes to School to be paid out of TAP funds. Given the limited TAP funds available, we encourage states to minimize these non-staff administrative expenses charged to the program, as it takes away from the funding that can go to local communities.

Data Collection and Clearinghouse

While this is not addressed in the final guidance, we applaud the US Department of Transportation for releasing a competition for the Safe Routes to School clearinghouse. Interested applicants are competing for a new three-year contract—meaning that the critical functions the National Center for Safe Routes to School provides, including collecting and analyzing student surveys and parent tallies, will be able to continue. We urge states to continue to require good data collection for Safe Routes to School project recipients.

Competitive Process

As you may recall, Transportation Alternatives requires states to sub-allocate a portion of the funding based on population, with large MPOs (200,000 population or more) running the competition to select projects.  The final guidance goes a step further:  for all funds other than what the large MPOs receive, state DOTs may not simply allocate all TAP funding by population to regional governments of all sizes—they are instead required to have a competition..

We are disappointed that the final guidance does not include a model Request for Proposals or application form that MPOs could use to jumpstart their process, as was promised in the interim guidance. The guidance does link to some examples that other organizations have produced. The Safe Routes to School National Partnership will be working with Advocacy Advance to produce a sample application.

Funding and Transferability

The final guidance reaffirms that states can transfer money from other transportation programs into TAP, and clearly states that TAP projects can be funded out of the Surface Transportation Program without even having to transfer the money to TAP.  It also restates that funds made available under the last transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU, for Safe Routes to School can be spent under the old rules (including at the 100% federal funding instead of requiring a match).  See our latest state of the states to see whether your state has funding remaining and work with your DOT to get the funds awarded and obligated as soon as possible.

We are concerned, however, that the guidance does not provide any limitations on the “flexibility of excess reserved funding” clause. This language rewards a state that has dallied in using their TAP funding beyond August 1, 2014 by giving it the ability to use TAP dollars for the broader types of projects eligible in the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program. We were hoping the final guidance would clarify that funds sub-allocated to MPOs would be exempt from this clause, or require states to put forward a good-faith effort to use these funds. Without this language, advocates will have to be vigilant to ensure that their state and the MPOs are moving forward in awarding and obligating projects in a timely fashion; otherwise MPOs and advocates may find that the TAP funds could be diverted by their state a year from now.

Eligible Projects

Congress added a new eligible project into TAP for boulevards. We are pleased that the guidance definition makes clear that any boulevard project must be a Complete Streets type of project that will be beneficial for bicyclists and pedestrians. The final guidance also clarifies that streetscaping can be eligible for funding, as long as it is part of another eligible project. Finally, the guidance explains that states and MPOs don’t have to consider all eligibilities for TAP equally—meaning that states and MPOs can choose to fund only Safe Routes to School, bicycling and walking projects through TAP and not include other types of eligible uses. 

Project Delivery

The guidance recommends that states provide clear information to help applicants understand the rules and regulations that apply to these projects. Separately, we have provided input to USDOT on another future rule that may lessen some of the regulatory burdens on these projects. We are pleased that the Q&A makes clear that TAP projects can be bundled in state and regional Transportation Improvement Plans. This means that each individual project doesn’t have to wait to be added to those plans by the appropriate government agency, removing another potential delay to implementation.

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About $800 million/year in Transportation Alternatives funds flows to the 51 state DOTs and the nearly 200 large metropolitan planning organizations throughout the country. We urge advocates to get familiar with the guidance, attend our upcoming webinar, and use the materials we will be creating in the coming weeks to ensure that Safe Routes to School continues and thrives in your state and region.