Every quarter, we look at how state departments of transportation (DOTs) are getting Transportation Alternatives Program money out the door so that it can build biking and walking infrastructure and support Safe Routes to School programs. Here’s the scoop on what we track and why it matters for state and local bicycle, pedestrian, and Safe Routes to School advocates updated to account for changes to the program in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
For starters, why do we track the implementation of the Transportation Alternatives Program?
- It provides advocates and practitioners with a way to see how their state is doing implementing this program.
- It provides us with a national view of opportunities to strengthen the program through our federal advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill and with USDOT.
I’m looking at the quarterly TAP tracking chart. What do all of these columns mean?
- Funding Available (FY13-Present): This is the total amount of funding a state has received since TAP began. It excludes funding for the Recreational Trails Program, which is often run by a different agency than the state DOT.
- Funding Available (FY22 – Present) This is the total amount of funding a state has received since Congress passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2021. It excludes the Recreational Trails Program.
- Total Obligated on Projects: Obligation is the formal term for committing funds to a project. In order to obligate TAP money, a state has to hold a competition, select projects, and then work with awardees to get the project through the regulatory process and under contract. Only after a project is obligated can construction or implementation of a program begin. Realistically, it can take a year or more to get a project obligated, which shows the importance for states to hold regular competitions and to dedicate enough staff to get projects obligated. Any funds that are unobligated after four years will lapse (see below for info on lapsing).
- Total Obligated on Technical Assistance: Under the BIL, states are allowed to use up to five percent of their TAP funds to hire TAP managers, Safe Routes to School coordinators, support applicants, and expedite project delivery. This column tracks how much states are obligating of these technical assistance funds. Note that a state may opt to obligate these funds on projects instead of technical assistance, which is perfectly acceptable.
- Percent Obligated: This column is the percentage of all TAP funds available (minus transfers and lapses, if applicable) that have been obligated. The target we look for is 65 percent. States should aim to stay above a 65 percent obligation rate to ensure they are awarding and obligating funds at a rate that avoids lapses. States that are below 35 percent really need to devote additional resources to get projects under contract more quickly. However, because we gave states a clean slate with the passage of the BIL, we know that it may take states a few years to compete, award, and obligate these funds.
- Change from Prior Quarter: This shows how much funding a state obligated since our last report. We would like to see consistent forward progress in obligation each quarter. Until we have enough years of data to see steady obligation percentages, this is a column to focus on. States should steadily obligate funding each quarter to make sure projects get built, programs get funded, and TAP funding does not lapse.
- Total Transferred by State: Under TAP, states are allowed to transfer up to 50 percent of TAP funding to other programs, usually to fund roads and bridges, only if they first hold a competition, provide ample time to apply, offer technical assistance, and do not receive sufficient suitable applications. Historically, demand has outpaced availability for funds 2:1, so we do not expect states to be able to transfer funds out of the program. If they do, it suggests that insufficient outreach has been done to potential applicants, the state is not providing technical assistance, or applicants are not requesting it. If a state transfers fund out of TAP in spite of these new requirements, it should be a huge red flag to advocates in that state that more outreach and technical assistance to potential applicants is needed.
- Total Let Lapse by a State: TAP money has to be obligated (i.e., put under contract) within four years. Any money that is not obligated within four years lapses, meaning that the money is taken away from TAP and returned to the federal government. Any state that has let funding lapse likely needs to focus additional staffing or priority to TAP so that projects are obligated in time, as it is being negligent in using TAP funds efficiently.
- Funds at Risk of Lapsing on 10/1/22: This column shows how much funding from the TAP funds received in FY19 still need to be obligated. If they are not obligated by the end of this fiscal year (September 30, 2022), they will lapse and revert to the federal government. States with good obligation processes will have a $0 in this column, meaning they are awarding and obligating projects consistently in less than four years.
- The columns in orange reflect historical data on the Transportation Alternatives Program. Here we can see how states have historically done managing this program. Prior to BIL, states were allowed to transfer up to half of TAP funds out of the program without any strings attached. This can be used as a reference for states that previously transferred money out or let money lapse to connect with their state DOTs to learn about what the DOT is putting in place to effectively steward the TAP funds to ensure they go to building safe, connected, and equitable places to walk and bike.
Finally, why do all these statistics matter? What should I do with this information?
Low obligation rates and lapses mean that even when a state is selecting biking and walking projects to fund, it's taking several years to get those projects actually built or implemented. The injury and fatality rates for people biking and walking have been on the rise for years -- by embracing this program and getting biking/walking infrastructure built more quickly can we start to turn that around.
If your state has funds at risk of lapsing, it’s essential to connect with others in your state to encourage the DOT to hold a competition for these funds and speed up their obligation process so that this money does not get returned to the federal government.
In addition, low obligation rates put TAP money at risk. Every once in a while, Congress does something called rescissions -- this means they are clawing back unused transportation money to try and reduce the shortfall in the highway trust fund. Programs and states with low obligation rates will take the brunt of the rescission. The last rescission in 2017 meant $60 million in TAP funding was lost. The best way to avoid this is to work with others in your state to encourage your DOT to hold regular competitions and to speed up their obligation processes.
Is your state transferring funding away from away from walking, bicycling, and Safe Routes to School? Since the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, it is critical to track whether states are transferring funds out of the program. Because of new provisions requiring states to hold competitions and provide technical assistance to applicants before they transfer funds, and states are provided with funds to administer the program and provide technical assistance, if a state carries through with transferring funds, it is a huge red flag and signals a breakdown in the administration of the program.
If your state has historically transferred funding out of the program or let funding lapse, we encourage you to be especially vigilant of ensuring that your state is conducting outreach to raise awareness of the funding opportunity and holding regular competitions.
We hope these data are as useful to you as they are to us! If you have questions about what the data mean or what to do with them, we always invite you to reach out to us.