Uneven Start for Safety Funding
For more than a decade, the League of American Bicyclists and other safety groups fiercely advocated for a “fair share for safety” in federal funding. We wanted to ensure that states with high fatality rates for people outside of cars (like people biking) had to invest in safer roads at a similarly high rate. Thanks to this advocacy, in 2021 the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) created a new rule for the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP), the largest dedicated source of safety funding in the United States.
The new rule – called the Vulnerable Road User Special Rule (VRU rule) – requires states where 15% or more of traffic deaths are deaths of vulnerable road users (people walking, biking, and using personal conveyances such as wheelchairs) to spend 15% or more of their HSIP funding on projects that improve the safety of vulnerable road users. Our Benchmarking Data site has resources explaining this rule and HSIP under the topics section.
Last year, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) issued guidance on how it would administer the new rule. And this year, the first release of data on how states have begun to implement and comply with the rule shows slow progress. Data on implementation of the new rule will be available quarterly, and we now have data on the first two quarters of the 2023 fiscal year which began in October 2022.
Overall, 32 states and the District of Columbia have to comply with the VRU rule for fiscal year 2023 because the percentage of vulnerable road use deaths exceeds 15%. To comply with the rule those states must obligate nearly $347 million, about 11.4% of all HSIP funds, to safety improvements for people biking, walking, and using personal conveyances such as wheelchairs. The amount each state must obligate is based on how much HSIP funding it receives, ranging from about $1.9 million in Delaware to $46.1 million in Texas.
So far, based on two quarters of reported data, 17 states – slightly more than half of the states subject to the rule – have obligated HSIP funds to fulfill their required spending under the VRU rule. The other 15 states and the District of Columbia have yet to obligate any funding under the VRU rule. At this date, Alaska, California, Maryland, and New Hampshire are leading the way with obligations, with each of those states obligating 60% or more of the required funds so far. Maryland has already obligated 100% of its required funds. Overall, slightly less than 19% of VRU rule HSIP funds have been obligated.
This is early data, but shows an uneven start for one of the most promising provisions of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Guidance on another component of this rule — each state conducting a Vulnerable Road User Safety Assessment — was not issued until October 2022, so perhaps this is just a sign of the process taking time to implement. Eight states reported their first obligations in the second quarter of FY 2023, including Maryland which reported that 100% of its required funding was obligated. So things can change quickly.
For instance, Michigan recently adopted a new version of its Strategic Highway Safety Plan (SHSP), a document required as part of the HSIP process, where it adopted a Safe System Approach. In its adopted plan, the Vulnerable Road User Safety Assessment is referenced as “under construction.” So far, Michigan has obligated 14% of its VRU rule HSIP funds. As states like Michigan complete their VRU Safety Assessments, the process for complying with the VRU rule should become clearer and funding obligations should increase. We know the safety needs are there, as both pedestrian and bicyclist deaths have increased to decade-plus highs in recent years.