High Stakes for NJ as Federal Transportation Law Is Implemented

Will MAP-21, the new federal transportation law, reward states for investing in public transit, or provide perverse incentives to widen roads?  Will the cuts to pedestrian and bicycle funding in the law imperil progress towards street safety?  And as Congress begins work on a successor to MAP-21, what are the chances that it will be a larger and more reform-oriented bill?

The answers to these questions could depend in large part on how involved local officials and advocates are, experts said Wednesday at “Mapping It Out: A User’s Guide to MAP-21,” a forum hosted by Tri-State Transportation Campaign and Transportation for America at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.

Funding New Jersey’s Priorities

MAP-21 does not significantly increase funding, but it does change where the money goes. Transportation for America’s deputy director of government affairs, Georgia Gann, warned that MAP-21 could make it harder for states to fund bridge repair, pedestrian and bicycle safety, and local priorities. That’s because the law boosts funding for the National Highway System (NHS) — the interstate highways and some other major roads — at the expense of other programs. (View her full presentation here.)

One of the most important changes in the new law is a 33% cut to federal funds dedicated to pedestrian and bicycle projects, explained Cyndi Steiner of the NJ Bike & Walk Coalition. In fiscal year 2012, New Jersey received about $25 million for these types of projects, but MAP-21 cuts that to less than $18 million/year. Sixty-nine organizations (including Tri-State) and government bodies, “from local touring clubs to environmental commissions,” mayors and police departments, signed onto a letter to NJDOT Commissioner Jim Simpson asking the state to use other federal funds to maintain the commitment to bike/ped projects. When asked about Congressional disdain for bike and pedestrian funding, Steiner replied that “the response locally [from local governments and advocates] couldn’t be more different.”

States do maintain substantial control of their funding, because they can transfer funds between the different federal funding programs. For example, New Jersey could reverse some of the changes in MAP-21 by transferring some of its federal money away from the NHS and back into programs that can be used for local bridges.

What Is “Performance”?

Another risk for states like New Jersey could come as the US Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration begin to work out performance measures as part of MAP-21.  The new legislation tells states to set targets and track progress on state of good repair, safety, congestion mitigation and air quality, freight movement, and performance.  How terms like “congestion” and “National Highway System performance” are defined will be very important.  “Will performance measures examine the right issues, or will they direct states to fix false problems?” Gann asked.

New Trent Street in Trenton, NJ (left) and I-295 in Hamilton, NJ (right) are both considered part of the National Highway System -- but "one's an interstate, and the other's a street where people live, walk, and visit friends," Gann said. States shouldn't have to apply one definition of "performance" to both roads.

For example, the law asks states to make progress on “traffic congestion.”  Depending on how progress is measured, states could be rewarded for investing in public transit that mitigates congestion, and making smart land use decisions that reduce how far people need to travel. Alternately, the performance measure could be narrowly focused on rush-hour highway speeds, giving states no credit for transit and incentivizing them to keep widening highways.

It’s not clear how performance measures will be used by the federal government, because they do not need to be established until April 2014. But they are likely to remain embedded in future legislation. “Whatever measures are established now could be in place for the next ten years,” Gann said.  For maximum impact, local officials and advocates should weigh in with the Federal Highway Administration before December of this year, when the agency aims to release draft performance metrics and guidance documents.

Local Action Needed

Speakers expressed unanimous disappointment with MAP-21, describing it as a transitional law that doesn’t provide the funding or the policy reforms needed to support a 21st century transportation system. “I sometimes see MAP-21 described as ‘historic,'” Transportation for America Campaign Director James Corless said. “Well, it’s historic in that it’s only two years long. It’s historic as the first bill in decades that doesn’t increase funding.”

Both Corless and Tri-State Senior Planner Steven Higashide argued that New Jersey is well positioned to impact the next transportation bill. The state’s U.S. Senators sit on key committees, and the state also has many suburban Republican U.S. House members, a bloc that proved influential in defeating HR7, the regressive House bill that proposed cutting transportation funding by a third, ending dedicated funding for public transit, and eliminating federal funding for bike and pedestrian projects.

With so much at stake, advocates and officials are working to raise awareness in New Jersey — and so far, it’s working. “When I would talk transportation issues five years ago, the response I would get was blank stares,” said Matthew Holt, a Hunterdon County freeholder and the chairman of the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, the state’s largest metropolitan planning organization. “But times have changed, and people are increasingly engaged.”

Since Holt was elected chair of the 13-county NJTPA, the agency has taken a leading role in explaining what MAP-21 means for the state. In August, it held a forum titled “Beyond MAP-21: Uncertain Future, Unmet Needs.”  Holt also called for a bipartisan approach to transportation in a recent Star-Ledger opinion piece.

“MAP-21 actually creates an opportunity to talk about the next bill because it’s so short,” explained David Behrend, NJTPA’s director of communications and government affairs. Both he and Chairman Holt said the agency would continue to educate its member municipalities about the challenges and opportunities posed by the new federal legislation.

Presentations from “Mapping It Out”

Georgia Gann, T4America — “How MAP-21 Will Impact Your Community”

Cyndi Steiner, NJ Bike & Walk Coalition — “Navigating MAP-21: The Campaign in New Jersey”

Georgia Gann, T4America — “Performance Measures in MAP-21: Opportunity or Risk?”

David Behrend, NJTPA — “MAP-21: An MPO Perspective”

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