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What the heck are rescissions, and what do we do about them?

As a rule of thumb, if you read this blog, we love you and want to make you happy. But this post is aimed specifically at bicycling advocates and people working to direct funding to bicycle and pedestrian projects. It’s a little more technical than your average blog post, so bear with me. The federal funding process and this thing called rescissions have vexed advocates for years. We’ve tried to explain the process and advise advocates on how to insure that state DOTs spend eligible funds on bike/ped projects with our new report, Rescissions and Restoration: fighting for priority.

Rescissions are essentially a bookkeeping measure when properly administered. They allow the USDOT to recoup unspent funds from state DOTs. However, some state DOTs have turned them into an opportunity to gut neglected bicycle and pedestrian funding sources in order to preserve favored programs. (Read page five of the full report to see what was rescinded in your state.)

Let’s dive right in. It is important for advocates to understand how much money is available in funding programs like Enhancements and CMAQ so they can help bicycle and pedestrian projects compete. Unfortunately it is complex.

Source: National Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse /

Source: National Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse / Click for larger version in the report, page 3.

There are two things that limit the money available in a program: apportionment and obligation  authority.

Apportionment is the amount annually allotted to each spending program based on the transportation authorization bill and annual appropriations approved by Congress.

Obligation Authority is a limit on total spending by a state in a given year across all programs. Because Congress doesn’t have enough money to fully fund all apportionments, they limit the total amount that a state can spend. This is the actual maximum that can be spent overall; it is not program specific.

This is where the trouble begins. This means that the balance for many programs keeps growing and states will never have enough obligation authority to spend the balances in all their programs (see Figure 1 above) Ideally the obligation authority should be spread proportionately among programs, but this never happens. States favor some programs over others and the programs that provide greatest opportunity for bicycle and pedestrian projects often get the least priority for obligation authority.

Rescissions simply take away portions of unused program balances. When rescissions are reversed those balances are restored. This is good news but advocates still need to help critical programs compete for obligation authority.

In September 2009, Congress rescinded, or cancelled, $8.7 billion worth of unspent transportation funds from State DOTs. In March 2010, the HIRE Act restored those funds. Bicycling and walking advocates should strongly encourage Departments of Transportation to make bicycling and walking projects a priority and quickly spend the restored funding.

Confusing, right? That’s ok. The important thing to know right now is that some rescissions have been restored. And we need to make sure that DOTs spend the restored funds.

The rescissions unfairly targeted bicycle and pedestrian programs. The funds have been restored to the programs from which they were rescinded. Now DOTs should prioritize these programs and use them to implement bicycle and pedestrian projects.

So, what do we do? Work with your state or local bicycling advocacy group to:

1) Identify cities, towns, and Municipal Planning Organizations (MPOs) that have benefited from

TE, CMAQ, Safe Routes to Schools, and Recreational Trails projects and highlight them to show the DOT, the state legislature, and the governor’s office their importance

2) Urge the head of state DOTs and governors to ensure bicycle and pedestrian projects get their fair share of funding from these funding sources quickly. In some case, state legislatures can be helpful as well. If you are doing any public events, such as ribbon cuttings, you can use that opportunity to encourage elected officials to invest more in bicycle and pedestrian projects
3) Meet with state DOT personnel4 to review USDOT guidance on each funding source as it relates to bicycle and pedestrian projects and make sure they are implementing good projects and programs. Most states should have eligible projects already in the pipeline. For example, the MPO in Chicago has a waiting list of CMAQ projects that are pre‐selected to receive funding made available by dropped or delayed projects or additional available obligation authority. If your state does not have such projects lined up, ask them why they haven’t prepped these popular projects. In those states that don’t have new projects ready, current projects should be expanded. States could also use this funding education programs, or for planning and engineering of projects to make them ‘ready to go’ for next year’s funding.

Help programs compete for obligation authority by finding political and agency champions who will make sure these programs are expertly administered. Push for these signs of excellence:

1. Timely and regular call for projects and selection of projects

2. Selection of projects that are as ready‐to‐go as possible

3. Multi‐year project programming so complex projects can be staged to use appropriation and obligation authority when ready (to see how this is managed well, look at any of the big highway funding programs, like NHS and state STP)

4. Transparent decision‐making process with meaningful public involvement

5. Clear criteria for selecting the best projects

6. Project sponsors (local governments) offering good cost‐effective projects that invest in proven

facilities and programs that will grow cycling and walking (and project sponsors being forthright and accurate about project implementation timetables)

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