How To Direct Federal Road Funding Into Your Community

If the surprising announcement of a new federal safety policy last week intrigued you, you’re not alone. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s USDOT was already likely going to be inundated with demands for a piece of the $1 billion federal road funding package. But with the additional announcements about safety, pedestrian deaths, and the role of many entities, these grants look even more attractive.

And, importantly for our cause, they look especially appealing to folks working specifically on safety improvements and reducing traffic violence. But how can volunteer advocacy groups, or local governments without  a full-time planner potentially court some of that cash?

In our last webinar, America Walks talked to three panelists who offered important, pragmatic advice to access grant money and ensure that we’re spending on our priorities, not just highway expansions and bigger parking lots.

Watch the webinar here:

What Money is Available for What Projects?

The Federal Infrastructure Bill has a dizzying array of new programs and beefed up funding for existing programs. For this webinar, we wanted to start at the top, with practical advice for advocates, local elected leaders, and civil servants who aren’t transportation experts  (and the infrastructure bill isn’t just for transportation – great summary here by Transportation for America)

Where to start? With a vision, advised Beth Osborne of Transportation for America.  “I think the most important thing is to have a strong vision locally, and worry about resources next,” she stated. “With good commitment and vision, you can find resources. And…there are tons of places to go for money! You do not have to stay in one tiny pod, you also do not need to make every active transportation effort its own project.”

With that vision, ask your state and local transportation officials how they are planning to seek federal dollars.  They ultimately write the grants or propose budgets to elected officials.  You need to know if they are working to fund a walkable equitable vision for the community, or are they trying to fund projects envisioned in a prior era. With prompting from community leaders you can help break the inertia of the past.

And you don’t have to be an expert to let them know what is potentially available. So let’s break that down a little.

Formula Funds vs Discretionary Grant Funding

Most of the federal road money (87 percent — about $271 billion) is directed to what is known as “formula programs.”  These flow directly to the states, and are spent at the discretion of states and metro areas with only general guidance from the federal government.  

The rest of the $312B in trust fund dollars (~$39B) are being directed to discretionary programs, such as competitive grants and research administered by USDOT.

It is tempting to look at the specific grants to fund the project you care about (and you should) but don’t ignore the formula funds. 

“We don’t want to be robbing the beggar in front of the bank,” Beth says. “We want to be robbing the bank!”

States have extremely broad discretion on how to spend these funds and could use them to fund active transportation and maintenance projects on local streets, not just on limited access freeways. 

“If they tell you they can’t, what they really mean is that they have chosen not to,” stated Beth.

Getting your local elected officials on board is critical, advised Mike. They can help recruit state legislative champions to shine a spotlight on state spending decisions. Check out our recent webinar for an inspiring example of such a statewide campaign.

Opportunities for Discretionary Grants

Ken McLeod of the League of American Bicyclists gave a great breakdown of the biggest opportunities in competitive grants for active transportation.  First, he said, start by looking at your existing transportation plans.

“If you have a plan that is a 20 year plan, and if you are in phase 3, this is like a perfect grant program to get you phase 4 or phase 5 funded in a quicker timeline than you might working through other federally funded programs,” explained Ken.

National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO)’s Sindhu Bharadwaj underscored the importance of coalition building for competitive grants.  Advocates in small towns or very car-centered regions might be able to acquire some additional funding. The key to their success, though, is focusing and working together.

As Sindhu said, funding opportunities can be a chance to bring together a number of organizations and advocates to pick one big goal, like adopting a new design plan. She suggested that the pursuit of funding can be a galvanizing point for a governing body or advocacy group.

If you’ve always wanted your town to adopt a NACTO design plan, going after a grant can help spur that action.

Policy Change as Secret Sauce

Sindhu also explained the importance of focusing not just on projects and funding, but the overall policies that govern the funding.  For example, “contains a subtle but crucial policy change that grants cities and towns  the permission for the first time to use a design guide of their choice when implementing programs with federal dollars.”

In short, she noted, “this means states can finally spend federal dollars on projects that are designed for people, even if your state is using different design standards.”

This change makes it easier for a city to adopt their own design standards and then focus their projects on meeting those plans.

“In the past, a lot of cities, especially smaller ones, were beholden to state requirements when it comes to designing their own streets. Thankfully this bill says, ‘Your streets. Your choice.’ Adopting guides that are more appropriate are something that everyone should be taking advantage of now.”

Similarly, adoption of complete streets policies at state or local levels can ensure that dollars, no matter the source, support walkable and accessible communities.

“Every single resurfacing program, or project should be an active transportation project!” reminds Osborne. “Every time they lay out new paint, that can be an active transportation project”

So let’s give you a checklist

  • Have a vision
  • Don’t look at just the specific grants – think about the whole funding pie
  • Ask your local decision makers how they intend to meet the vision with new federal funds. And don’t be bamboozled by claims that the money is restricted for other uses – that’s a choice
  • Build a coalition and recruit champions to keep the spotlight on community priorities
  • Don’t forget the state and local policy changes that can guide federal dollars to better uses. 
  • And let us know how you are doing – all of the organizations represented in this webinar are here to help!

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