Senate Draft Transportation Bill Includes Key Improvements for Safe Routes to School

Matthew ColvinToday, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee released their draft bill reauthorizing MAP-21, which would fund our nation’s surface transportation programs for an additional six years.   Before the bill can come to the Senate floor for a vote, however, the Senate Finance Committee must complete the daunting task of shoring up the funding for our soon-to-be bankrupt Highway Trust Fund. 

That hurdle aside, the EPW draft, which will be marked up on Thursday in the Committee, represents several important policy improvements for Safe Routes to School—all of which are provisions the National Partnership has been working to secure.  A big thank you goes to Senators Boxer (D-CA) and Vitter (R-LA) for including these provisions in their draft bill, and for Senators Cardin (D-MD), Cochran (R-MS), Merkley (D-OR) and Ayotte (R-NH) for leading these efforts.

1.      Restores eligibility for non-profits:  When the standalone Safe Routes to School program was created under the previous transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU, non-profit organizations were eligible to apply for Safe Routes to School funding.  Unfortunately, MAP-21 eliminated this eligibility, greatly restricting the ability of organizations to carry out safety education and other non-infrastructure activities.  Restoring eligibility to non-profit organizations will eliminate a major road block for getting highly effective Safe Routes projects on the ground.  Unfortunately, Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) that represent populations under 200,000 people are still not made eligible to apply directly for funding. 

 2.      Allows 100 percent federal funding for Safe Routes to School projects: Under SAFETEA-LU, Safe Routes to School projects were eligible to be funded at a 100 percent federal share.  When Safe Routes to School was consolidated into the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) in MAP-21, all projects were required to provide a 20 percent local match on a project-by-project basis.  Yet, many communities that need Safe Routes to School projects the most aren’t able to provide a 20 percent match, making this requirement a major barrier. By including Safe Routes to School in the list of safety projects eligible to receive up to 100 percent federal funding—at the state’s discretion—the EPW bill will allow communities to once again access this critical funding. However, if this passes, advocates will need to work together to encourage states to use this provision.

3.      Provides greater local control and transparency for Transportation Alternatives Program funds: The Transportation Alternatives Program, which is home to Safe Routes to School funding, currently divides funding equally into two pots – one allocated to state DOTs and one distributed by population within the state (including an allocation to large MPOs).  The EPW bill changes this allocation so that two-thirds of the funds will be distributed by population, and one-third will be allocated to the state DOT, allowing greater local control over how funding is spent.  The bill will also bring greater transparency to how TAP funding is allocated by requiring states and MPOs to report details about project applications and selected projects. 

 4.      Creates a bicycle and pedestrian safety measure: While MAP-21 moved to a performance- and outcome-based system of providing state funding, the omission of a specific safety performance measure for non-motorized road users threatens to create even more dangerous conditions on our roads for bicyclists and pedestrians. At a time when more than 16 percent of all road fatalities are non-motorized, and less than one half of one percent of safety funding is spent on improving their well-being, this measure could not be more important. For these reasons, we are so pleased that the Senate EPW draft creates separate motorized and non-motorized safety measures.

 5.      New opportunities for TIFIA financing: The TIFIA financing program is amended to include smaller, standalone transit oriented development projects with a minimum project cost of $10 million.  Previously, the minimum cost for TIFIA projects was $50 million, putting funding out of reach to many smaller projects.  Included in the list of eligibilities are bicycle and pedestrian paths, which could allow more communities to build bicycle and pedestrian networks with these loans.

While there is no word on when we can expect the final components of the transportation bill from the Senate Finance, Commerce, and Banking Committees, all signs point to solid footing for Safe Routes to School and active transportation more generally, moving forward.  We anticipate several amendments will be offered in the EPW markup this Thursday to further strengthen the position of our program – so keep an eye out for additional updates on our blog in the coming weeks.  We will also be continuing to monitor the House of Representatives for any signs of movement on their draft.