All Things Federal: Sequester, Performance Measures and MAP-21 Implementation

Margo PedrosoIf the news in your hometown is similar to what I hear in Washington, DC, you are probably hearing a lot about the sequester. Back in 2011, Congress and the President agreed to reduce the federal deficit, and created the sequester as a fail-safe to force spending cuts if they couldn’t reach a deal. Since no agreement has been reached, the sequester kicks in on March 1 and will require approximately $85 billion in cuts to federal spending between now and September 30, split evenly between defense spending and domestic spending.

Secretary LaHood has spoken quite a bit recently about the impact of these cuts on air travel, with air traffic controllers and TSA employees likely to be furloughed. But, he hasn’t talked about the impact on surface transportation. That is because the Highway Trust Fund dollars generated from the federal gas tax—which fund roads, bridges, Transportation Alternatives projects and more—are exempt from the sequester. 

However, the Trust Fund has gotten infusions of money from general tax dollars to help keep it solvent, and those funds are subject to the sequester. So, Highway Trust Fund programs will see a small cut, of approximately 1 percent. We don’t yet have the details on how those cuts will be applied, but if it is similar to how the sequester is being implemented, it has to be applied evenly across all programs. Other programs beneficial to bicycling and walking that are not part of the Highway Trust Fund, such as the TIGER multi-modal transportation grants and the Community Transformation Grants will see cuts of approximately 5 percent. It is still possible Congress could come to a deficit reduction deal that would cancel the sequester—but that is not expected until late March at the earliest when Congress also has to complete work on this year’s appropriations bills. 

On another note, even though the MAP-21 transportation law is only a two-year law, it includes changes that can take months or even years to take effect. As we are still waiting on the final guidance for Transportation Alternatives, I want to focus on performance measures. MAP-21 requires the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) to set performance measures in several areas no later than March 2014. States then have another year to set their targets within those performance areas. While this seems far off, performance measures have the potential to drive how states spend their funds as they try to meet their performance targets.

In partnership with other national bicycling and walking organizations, the Safe Routes to School National Partnership is advocating that USDOT include a performance measure on bicycle and pedestrian injuries and fatalities. Bicycle and pedestrian fatalities are rising, and now make up 16 percent of all traffic fatalities. Yet, just a handful of states spend a tiny percentage of their Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) dollars on bicycle and pedestrian safety. Creating a performance measure on bicycle and pedestrian safety will help ensure that states set targets to improve safety for these users—which will likely result in more safety spending on bicycling and walking. Attendees of the National Bike Summit next week will get a chance to talk with their Members of Congress about this important request on performance measures.

Finally, it’s important with all this focus on the future that we don’t forget about the past. The majority of states still have funds remaining from the old Safe Routes to School program available for more grant cycles. Take a look at our latest State of the States report to see what funding your state has remaining, and check in with your state’s Safe Routes to School coordinator to see what your state’s plans are for spending any remaining funds.