Congress Locks In Funding for Safe Routes with New Five-Year Transportation Bill

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act), which is the final transportation agreement negotiated between the House and Senate.  Once the Senate passes the agreement, expected by early next week, a new five-year transportation law will be in effect.

Fortunately, we were able to preserve funding for Safe Routes to School, bicycling and walking and obtain a few policy improvements in the FAST Act.  There is a small increase in funding for TAP (which is renamed "STP Setaside"), nonprofits are eligible to compete for funding, and the competitive structure with shared decision-making between state departments of transportation and metropolitan planning organizations is maintained.  (See below for more details).

This means we have five years of certainty that the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) will continue to provide hundreds of millions of dollars for Safe Routes to School, bicycling and walking infrastructure and programming across the country.  This is a real victory given the conservative Congress in which opponents wanted to eliminate the program altogether. 

Our success is a tribute to advocates across the country who have put TAP funds to good use and have shared their Safe Routes to School stories with members of Congress.  We are also grateful to our local, state and national partner organizations that advocated for this outcome. And, it is due to the tenacious leadership of a number of Congressional champions, including Senators Cardin (D-MD), Cochran (R-MS) and Boxer (D-CA) and Representatives DeFazio (D-OR), Larsen (D-WA), Blumenauer (D-OR), Buchanan (R-FL) and Zeldin (R-NY). 

Thank you for all your support over the years to get to this point—and we look forward to hearing more about the continued success of Safe Routes to School all around the country!

Margo PedrosoFor the full details, we’ve included some questions and answers about the impact of the FAST Act on the Transportation Alternatives Program and Safe Routes to School, bicycling and walking. 

How much funding is available for the Transportation Alternatives Program under the new bill?

Funding for TAP will grow from the current level of $819 million per year to $835 million in 2016 and 2017 and to $850 million in 2018 through 2020.

Does the name change for TAP have any practical effect on how the program works?

The Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) is renamed to “STP Setaside” and will now be a sub-program of the Surface Transportation Program, which is a large and fairly flexible pot of funding that state departments of transportation and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) use for a wide range of transportation projects. But, even though it’s been moved and renamed, TAP will function just the same as it does now: Safe Routes to School, bicycling and walking projects can all compete for funding. The matching requirements have also been left unchanged, requiring some cost-sharing at the state or local level.

Who will be the decision-maker on how TAP funds are spent?

Just as in current law, state departments of transportation will still control 50 percent of TAP funds to either award to projects or transfer to other uses, and the other 50 percent is targeted for projects in small towns, mid-sized communities and larger urban areas.  For large urban areas with more than 200,000 people, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) run the competitions and pick the projects.

One negative change to current law will allow large MPOs to divert up to half of their TAP funds for road or other transportation projects.  Because TAP still requires a competitive process in which local governments apply for projects and because most MPOs have more Safe Routes, bicycling and walking projects that they can currently fund with limited TAP dollars, we don’t anticipate this will be an issue in most cities.  But advocates in these larger cities should get to know their MPOs and work to influence their TAP process to ensure all these funds are used for Safe Routes to School, walking and bicycling.  Get some good ideas about what to advocate for in our December 8 webinar, which highlights how several MPOs are supporting Safe Routes to School!

Are nonprofits able to compete for TAP funds?

Under the prior Safe Routes to School program, nonprofits were able to apply for funding—but were left out when Congress first created TAP.  Under the FAST Act, state and local nonprofit organizations that work on transportation safety will be allowed to compete directly for TAP dollars.  This will be of particular help to bicycle and pedestrian organizations that want to implement bike safety programs at multiple schools, for example. 

TAP projects often must go through a lot of regulatory hoops before they can be implemented.  Is there any remedy in the FAST Act?

The US Department of Transportation is required to issue new guidance within a year to help ensure that TAP and other transportation projects can move through the regulatory process more efficiently.  We hope this will make it easier to implement Safe Routes to School projects across the country, and will work with USDOT to ensure the guidance is beneficial to TAP projects.

Are there any Complete Streets provisions in the bill?

States are now encouraged to adopt Complete Streets standards for the planning, development and operation of federally-funded transportation projects, and the US Department of Transportation will issue best practices and report on progress by the states.

Is there anything else that is helpful to Safe Routes to School, bicycling and walking?

There are new transparency requirements in TAP that will ensure that states and MPOs report to USDOT about the number, amount and types of applications as well as funded projects.  This data will be helpful in documenting the demand for different types of TAP projects.

States with high rates of bicycle and pedestrian fatalities (more than 15 percent of all traffic deaths) will be eligible for a portion of approximately $14 million under a new National Priority Safety Program to support awareness, education and enforcement meant to reduce bicycle and pedestrian fatalities and injuries.

And, the NACTO Urban Street Design manual, which has more progressive designs for bicycling and walking, is now officially recognized as design guidance for federally-funded projects. 

How can I learn more about the changes to TAP and what it means for my program and my community?

We will be hosting a webinar on the FAST Act and what it means for TAP and Safe Routes to School in your state and community in mid-January.  We will talk about many of the issues discussed here and have ample time for questions from the audience.  Stay tuned for the announcement of the date and how to register.  If you aren’t already on our e-mail list, please sign up!