New Infrastructure Dollars and Advocating for Walkable, Equitable Places

If the surprising announcement of a new federal safety policy last week intrigued you, you’re not alone. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s US DOT was already likely going to be inundated with demands for a piece of the $1 billion federal road funding and infrastructure 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 areas — like towns without a full-time planner or unincorporated counties — 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.

Why Access Federal Infrastructure Funding?

The short answer is because most local projects need more funding, period. But specifically, federal road funding grants can potentially help organizations reach their goals.

“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 McLeod of the League of American Bicyclists.

National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO)’s Sindhu Bharadwaj underscored the importance of the safety policy shift, which would make it more possible to target this money. The bill, she explained, “contains a subtle but crucial policy changethat grants essays expose that 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.”

But Isn’t It All For Highways?

As Beth Osborne of Transportation for America pointed out, much of the funding available isn’t even for transportation. We may often use shorthand like “federal road funding,” but the bill includes much more. Money for environmental remediation, broadband, and energy are all part of the package.

“It is really a ton of funding in here, for remediation, all kinds of things,” Osbourne explained. “There are some exciting new programs, such as the carbon reduction program.”

On their blog, Transportation for America created a summary of this important point.

This is important, said Osbourne, because it helps dictate which pools of money your organization may go after — and which less-than-desirably projects won’t be getting money.

Formula grants are not especially exciting (Osbourne says they’re “pretty status quo”). The issue is frequently that the use of these funds is typically at the discretion of folks who don’t necessarily look for ways to change up their usual methods and ideas. They may not prioritize active transportation. But with a little bit of pushing, they can often be moved.

Lawmakers tend to assign money for things that already exist — like highways and projects that will perpetuate our current problems.

“To dig out of a hole,” Osbourne says, “you really have to spend more money on the things that you are neglecting, rather than anything that is causing problems.”

This creates a problem as our federal road funding continues to throw bad money after good. But as we’ve seen, many of these decision-makers aren’t very aware of the lived reality of non-drivers. As constituents and activists, we can’t assume that they’ll make decisions that benefit people with that experience.

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





Coming Together for Funding

The concensus of the panelists was really that this funding is potentially available to people from all corners of the nation. Even 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 Bharadwa 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.

Osbourne also underscored the importance of vision and community.

“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.”

The first thing to do is take stock of what you want. Then, become involved at any level.

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