NJBWC Advocacy Saves The State $12 Million in Federal Bike and Pedestrian Dollars
The New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) announced on October 26, 2018 the authorization of a record $23 million in federal Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) funds to 31 bicycle and pedestrian projects: $2.35 million to 13 Safe Routes to School (SRTS) projects and $18.61 million to 18 TAP projects across the state, and $2.2 million to the state’s Transportation Management Associations for SRTS work. This obligation of TAP funds enabled the agency to avoid a lapse of these federal dollars back to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). In a letter addressed to New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition (NJBWC) Executive Director Cyndi Steiner, NJDOT Assistant Commissioner Michael Russo announced the authorization and stated, “As a result of these authorizations, no prior year TAP apportionments will lapse in FFY18.”
The largest award, $8.5 million, went to the Delaware River Heritage Trail for a bypass of Route 130 in Burlington County; this stretch of road is notorious for being the state’s most dangerous road for pedestrians. The smallest award was a $30,000 SRTS grant to Collingswood for traffic calming measures. Large or small, these are dollars well spent in a state that typically ranks at or near the top in pedestrian road fatalities.
As we stated last fall, the state lost $6.2 million in TAP funds in the fall of 2017, one of only four states to lose these funds, and the highest among the four. In December 2017, NJBWC began advocating heavily for the state to take action to avoid an even bigger lapse in 2018, one that was projected to be $11.8 million. In our role as Co-Chair of the state’s Legislative Subcommittee of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Council (BPAC), we helped draft a white paper that the council submitted to the Murphy transition team, calling upon the state to create a Federal Aid Task Force to study ways to avert the lapse. We asked that bicycle and pedestrian advocates be included on the task force. Bike and pedestrian projects make streets and roads safer for all users, offer access to physical activity, are environmentally friendly and provide economic vitality to towns. Saving these dollars would have positive impacts to the state in a myriad of ways.
Our efforts continued in February, when we testified, along with our partners at Tri-State Transportation Campaign, before the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee and the Senate Transportation Committee, calling legislators’ attention to the looming lapse and again requesting that a task force be convened.
In early spring of 2018, we led a meeting among our partner organizations with Assistant Commissioner Russo; we discussed the pending lapse and offered our assistance in finding ways to prevent it, including focusing on regional projects as opposed to smaller municipal level projects, where the funds were less likely to be spent; and on obligating these federal funds for all phases of projects, not just construction, which has been NJDOT’s policy. We also had similar discussions with senior transportation policy advisors within the Murphy administration, and were encouraged by their support.
Regional projects, such as the Union Transportation Trail which received $1.3 million, span counties, have more efficient economies of scale, and encourage communities to undertake smaller scale bicycle and pedestrian improvements that leverage these larger projects, thereby creating connectivity, and broadening the reach of these larger projects. Regional projects also demonstrate state and county leadership by setting examples for communities.
Obligating these funds for all phases of a project increases the likelihood that these funds will be utilized; when there is no pipeline of construction-ready projects, the state runs the risk of a lapse. While the FHWA permits TAP funds to be used for all phases of projects, from property acquisition through to construction, the state imposes these eligibility constraints. However, this round of authorizations includes 18 design projects, likely a first for NJDOT’s TAP program.
Later that spring, we participated in the task force that we had requested. In late summer, our partners at Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia launched an action alert that stirred up the issue in the waning weeks of the government’s fiscal year, as time was running out to save the TAP funds.
We applaud the NJDOT for hearing our concerns and working to obligate these funds instead of allowing another lapse to occur. We are also encouraged that NJDOT appears to be broadening its constraints on how these funds may be spent, so that projects could be funded from their initial planning and concept stages to design and construction.
We are aware that there are looming lapses in FY19 and in FY2020, and we are encouraged by Commissioner Russo’s closing words: “NJDOT will continue to work with local grant recipients and partner with active transportation advocates with the goal of having an equally successful 2019 TAP program year.” Thank you very much, Commissioner Russo!
Cyndi Steiner is Executive Director of the NJBWC. This blog was originally posted on the NJBWC webpage.