Regional leaders are hinting that it might be time to stop dedicating a key funding source to biking and walking projects. And advocates are not taking it lightly.
The discussion is centered around what is known as the regional flexible funding allocation, a pot of money Metro gets from the federal government and then hands out to cities and counties. In the next round of allocations for 2019-2021, $38 million (out of a total of $125 million) is set-aside specifically for infrastructure. (The rest goes to transit bond payments ($48 million) and region-wide planning and program investments ($28 million). There’s another $11 million that might be available for infrastructure but that’s not decided yet).
Unlike the vast majority of transportation dollars (gas tax and other mode-specific loan and grant programs), local governments can spend flexible funds however they want — which means something other than highway widening, rail transit or bridge upgrades. That makes flexible funds extremely competitive. In the past, Metro has chosen to invest these funds into two categories: freight and biking/walking (a.k.a. active transportation).
Prior to 2010 the allocation was done on a project-by-project basis; but freight advocates began to cry foul when active transportation projects started gobbling up all the money. So in 2010 freight and business interests lobbied for a big change: They proposed that 75% of the funds should go to freight projects and just 25% should go to active transportation projects.
“The policy takes us back to the era when it was unique to put a sidewalk or bike lane on a project. It’s not unique anymore.”
— Roy Rogers, Washington County Commissioner
When the votes were cast, Metro’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation (JPACT) voted 7-6 to flip that proposal and instead give active transportation 75% of the funds and freight 25%. While it represented a decrease in bike funding from the previous year, The Bicycle Transportation Alliance hailed the vote as a major victory because it guaranteed bike funding and it quelled a major freight money-grab.
This allocation cycle happens every three years. In 2012, when JPACT voted against using the 75/25 split and instead threw freight, active transportation, and even traditional highway projects all into the same pot — biking and walking didn’t do well, receiving just $9 million of $39 million dollars in funding.
Now the drama around this funding source is heating up again.
JPACT, a 17-member committee made up of mayors, commissioners and agency directors from around the region, met yesterday to decide how the present this policy to the public. Metro staff asked them for input on how to present the policy to the public in advance of a comment period which starts in January. Here are the two options that Metro staff presented to JPACT for feedback (taken from meeting packet):
Do you think we should:
a) set aside some money for walking and biking improvements and some for freight improvements, letting the projects compete within these two categories? [maintain the 75/25 split]
b) put all of the funds toward an overall group of projects that could collectively demonstrate benefits to both walking or biking and freight movement? [do away with dedicated pots]
JPACT member Tim Knapp, the mayor of Wilsonville who represents the cities of Clackamas County, said they want to do away with the 75/25 split. “There’s a strong feeling among all of our cities that we need to not keep carving into smaller and smaller portions.” Small portions, he and others argue, make it, “increasingly difficult to fund anything significant.” A system that put all the funds together and then made each project meet certain evaluation criteria would be better, Knapp said.
Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel said she also wants to remove the 75/25 split because it presents “a lot of challenges for us in developing a complete project.”
Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle, one of JPACT’s Washington County representatives, echoed Knapp’s comments and added that the current language is too difficult for the public to fully grasp. Like Knapp, he’d rather ask people about their values. “Make it more understandable… hit the 7th grade [reading] level,” he said.
Metro Council Vice-Chair Shirley Craddick went against the grain and said she wants to maintain the 75/25 split. “The public is smarter than we generally give them the benefit of when we sit around tables like this,” she said. Craddick added that the dedicated pots should be maintained because of the lack of funding options that exist for active transportation projects. “We have tendency to move them [dollars] all into highway projects,” she said. “The goal was to protect those funds.” If the policy was changed and it was just one large pot, Craddick wants to make sure walking and biking projects don’t get left out.
Many of the voices in favor of dropping the 75/25 policy say it’s not needed because biking and walking are already engrained into the policies of every jurisdiction. Even highway projects they say, now almost always include bike lanes, so there’s no need for dedicated funding.
“We believe that dedicating funds is truly the only way to ensure our priorities are funded regularly and consistently.”
— Gerik Kransky, Bicycle Transportation Alliance
On that note, Washington County Commissioner Roy Rogers said option A is “counterproductive.” “We understand we’re a multimodal system. About 25% of all our project costs go to walking and biking.” Rogers said JPACT members could be trusted to not “deviate” from biking and walking projects. He said the dedicated funding approach, “The policy takes us back to the era when it was unique to put a sidewalk or bike lane on a project. It’s not unique anymore.”
Should bike advocates trust Rogers that he and other electeds would still fund active transportation if they weren’t forced to? Bicycle Transportation Alliance Advocacy Director Gerik Kranksy doesn’t think so. He issued a BTA action alert today urging people to email JPACT members and tell them to keep the 75/25 split. He thinks without dedicated pots, all the money will to go auto-centric road projects.
“We believe that dedicating funds is truly the only way to ensure our priorities are funded regularly and consistently,” Kransky wrote in the action alert.
“Whatever answer the public gave, I still think we should pursue a 75/25 split.”
— Steve Novick, Portland City Commissioner
He has reason to be suspicious. In 2010 Rogers was one of the six JPACT members who voted against the 75/25 active transportation/freight project split. At that time we were in a recession and freight projects were synonmous with economic development. “Frankly, if we want to keep this economy going,” Rogers said. “Anything that helps the business community we have to take a hard look at.”
Where does the City of Portland stand? City Commissioner Steve Novick said he wants to stick with the 75/25 split whether it’s specifically stated in policy or not. (He clarified his stance with me in a phone call after the meeting.) “The question we’re proposing to ask the public isn’t inconsistent with the idea of a 75-25 split,” he said. “Whatever answer the public gave, I still think we should pursue a 75/25 split. And although we go with option b, it might involve making some judgment calls about how much of a project is bike and ped and how much is freight.”
For what it’s worth, the City of Portland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committees took an informal vote on the policy at their meeting earlier this week. A majority of their members said (not surprisingly) that they’d support a flexible fund allocation that asks for 100% to be invested in biking and walking.
The main argument from active transportation advocates is that there are many other large funding sources for freight projects, and only a precious few for biking and walking. That argument is even stronger now after passage of the federal FAST Act which includes two new freight funding programs, one of which will send $80 million (over five years) to Oregon.
At this point it seems likely that JPACT will vote to end the 75/25 split. If they do, Metro says it would be possible to set up an evaluation system to make sure projects “achieve certain outcomes.”
(While the BTA will fight to maintain the existing policy, they are also pushing to get more money from these flexible funds for Safe Routes to School. We’ll have more on that next week.)
Update, Saturday 8:06 am: We’ve clarified and changed Commissioner Novick’s stance on the issue after he contacted us to explain it further.
— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – firstname.lastname@example.org