Wisconsin Slips to #3: Explained

As Tom Held reported in his Off the Couch blog, the League of American Bicyclists released the 2011 ranking of Bicycle Friendly States and Wisconsin has dropped from #2 to #3. Washington remains at the top, but Maine edged past us into second place.  The complete list is at the bottom of this post for reference.

The League ranks states by scoring each state in six categories: Legislation, Policies & Programs, Infrastructure, Education & Encouragement, Evaluation & Planning, and Enforcement.  The categories are graded A through F and a cumulative grade gives the overall rank.  Wisconsin got As in the Policies and Encouragement categories.  We got a C in Legislation, and Ds in the Infrastructure and Enforcement categories.

We took the biggest hit in our D grade for infrastructure, as did many other states.  Since our bike trails and lanes didn’t suddenly vanish, via email I asked League President Andy Clark how the Badger State could drop so much in that category in one year. He explained that the League looked not only at built infrastructure (like miles of trails) but also at how the states spent available funds for new infrastructure.

Wisconsin cut its bicycling budget, sent back loads of TE and CMAQ money in rescissions, didn’t spend much of its TE or SRTS funds, didn’t spend any HSIP or STP (0.1% of $) funds on bike/ped,” Andy wrote.  By contrast Maine spent 84% of SRTS money, 60% of TE spent on bike/ped projects, and didn’t rescind ANY TE funds.” Andy added that about 40 states got F grades for infrastructure, worse than Wisconsin, for similar funding reasons.

There are loads of acronyms and government terms in that explanation, so for the non-bureaucrats in the audience I’ll let the Bicycle Doctor dissect that load of goverment-speak and translate it into a common language normal people can understand:

Wisconsin cut its bicycling budget” is pretty self-explanatory.  Gov. Walker’s recent budget strips state funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects that used to be in the budget under the previous administration.

sent back loads of TE and CMAQ money in rescissionsTE is short for Transportation Enhancement funds.  CMAQ is for Congestion Mitigation Air Quality Program funds. CMAQ and TE are alternating year federal grant programs that provide the majority of funds for bicycle projects as well as other non-traditional transportation projects. SRTS stands for Safe Routes to School funds. I’m not sure the LAB’s SRTS claim is accurate.  I think Wisconsin spent most of its SRTS money, but that is one of the smaller funding sources. HSIP stands for Highway Safety Improvement Program, which is used to fund infrastructure improvements at locations with high crash rates.  Finally, STP stands for Surface Transportation Program, a larger program that provides funds for a wide range of transportation projects, including projects on higher function local roads (arterials and collector streets) and local transportation safety improvements.   The TE program is a subprogram of the larger STP funds.

A rescission is the cancellation of some amount of a state’s funds that have not been obligated to a transportation program. This typically happens when States balance the difference between how much money was apportioned in the transportation budget and how much the feds actually appropriated.  Basically rescissions are accounting gimmicks used by the Feds to put off making difficult spending decisions when they authorize money for more projects than they actually have the funds to pay for under a particular program.

To better understand this issue, let’s look at the STP program.  Let’s hypothetically say in a given year the Feds apportion $100 million for STP of which, states are supposed to spend 10% of the on TE.  But then the feds only obligate 90% of the promised total transportation budget (for everything, interstates, STP, CMAQ, Bridges, etc).  In order to meet the overall obligation rate, our state legislature decides to cut the TE funds by 40% and fully or more fully fund the interstate and road categories of the budget.  We are able to do this despite the requirement to spend 10% of STP on TE because the Feds allow the states to carry balances to deal with historic differences between apportioned transportation budget, the appropriated budgets and the obligation rates. Because our state legislature has over time de-prioritized TE and more fully funded road projects, Wisconsin has built up a very large budgetary balance of unspent TE funds. Then when the feds come around and ask for rescissions, WisDOT rescinds that large balance of unspent TE funds.  This is sort of like permanently emptying your deleted items files.

In fact, Wisconsin rescinded $16 million in TE funds in 2010, while Maine rescinded $0 in TE money.  Just so you understand that this is not just a Walker issue, in 2009 Wisconsin rescinded $35 million (under Doyle), while Maine only rescinded $1.7 million. The underfunding of our state bicycle and pedestrian facilities program has been going on for a long time under both Democratic and Republican administrations and legislatures. Remember that the WisDOT spends all the money the legislature gives them.  It is the legislature that is taking an unfair amount of money from the bicycle and pedestrian facilities program to meet obligation limits.

With their rankings this year, the League is trying to make the point that that since bike projects make up such a tiny percentage of the overall transportation budget, and because they have been underfunded for so long, states should spend all their TE funds and instead rescind more funds from road projects to meet their obligation rates. As Andy mentioned, Maine did just that and did not rescind any of their TE money. That is why they got a better grade in infrastructure than we did.

I could go on and discuss apportionment as well, which also is a factor in how federal spending works at the state level, but I don’t want to get too wonky here.  For those of you who want to know everything you can about TE or to compare other states or to see Wisconsin’s history of spending under the TE program check out the excellent National Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse website.

“didn’t spend much of its TE or SRTS funds”  The major problem here is the same as the explanation above.  But another growing problem is that the local municipalities are having a very hard time getting any transportation projects approved since the management of those projects was privatized under the Doyle administration.  In each region of the state, WisDOT used to have a single state employed engineer review the local projects that use federal funds (which are distributed through State DOTs).  That engineer used to be required to give a cursory review of the projects to make sure the locals were following state and federal rules.

Under Sec. Busalacchi, the WisDOT replaced those single state employees with private engineering firms who were given master consulting contracts and charged with managing the local programs.  That privatization has slowed the review of projects, added tremendous amounts of paperwork, and increased the cost share of design and engineering at the expense of construction.  Before the master consultants were in charge the locals were able to process the paperwork and get designs approved much more quickly.

Because it can now take years to get the paperwork approved, projects in Wisconsin just don’t get built on a timely basis, and it looks like we are not spending our federal money. It is important to note that this is true of all transportation projects, not just those non-traditional projects for bicyclists and pedestrians. I have heard from our consultants that work in other states and even other countries that Wisconsin has the most red tape and complicated local management program around.

On the other hand, freeway projects are managed directly by WisDOT (with Federal oversight, just like the local programs) and so not only are they funded at a much higher obligation rate than bike and pedestrian projects, they can be done much more quickly.  In fact, any projects that are not managed by the private engineering firms still get done pretty quickly.  That includes our local street program in Milwaukee which is funded through the wheel tax and property taxes.  Because those streets don’t get federal money we don’t have all the extra state and federal paperwork, rules and oversight.

This is only part of Wisconsin’s currently dysfunctional transportation system story, but it helps you understand why we slipped.  It is also important to note that we might have slipped a spot even if the current administration had not cut the budget for bicycle projects.  That said, it does look pretty bicycle unfriendly to increase the budget for highways and cut bikes (and transit). To look at the bright side, we are still number three and Wisconsin remains a pretty great place to ride a bicycle!

1. Washington- Silver*
2. Maine
3. Wisconsin – Silver* 
4. Minnesota – Silver*  
5. New Jersey- Bronze*
6. Iowa
7. Florida 
8. Oregon- Silver*
9. Massachusetts – Bronze*
10. Maryland – Bronze* 
11. Illinois  
12. Colorado  
13. Virginia  
14. New Hampshire 
15. Vermont
16. Arizona- Bronze* 
17. Wyoming  
18. Delaware- Bronze* 
19. Indiana  
20. California  
21. Connecticut  
22. Michigan  
23. Kansas  
24. Louisiana  
25. Pennsylvania
26. Missouri  
27. Tennessee- Bronze* 
28. Rhode Island 
29. Alaska 
30. Idaho  
31. Utah  
32. Texas  
33. Kentucky
34. New York 
35. Mississippi
36. Hawaii  
37. Ohio 
38. North Carolina
39. South Carolina 
40. Georgia  
41. South Dakota 
42. Nevada 
43. Oklahoma  
44. New Mexico 
45. Nebraska  
46. Montana  
47. Alabama  
48. Arkansas  
49. North Dakota  
50. West Virginia
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About daveschlabowske

Cyclechic advocate from Milwaukee
This entry was posted in Advocacy, Biking by the Numbers, Transportation Funding. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Wisconsin Slips to #3: Explained

  1. Ed Haydin says:

    great insight Dave- it’s difficult not to gloss over the acronyms while trying to understand the actual issues.
    thanks again for all the work in keeping MKE in the top three in the nation.

  2. Sonia says:

    Holy cow, great post, Dave. Thank you so much for this detailed explanation.

    Do you know–is the transportation lobby hard at work trying to get WISDOT managers back on reviewing the local projects?

    • daveschlabowske says:

      No, I don’t think so. This process does slow down all transportation projects, but the consultants are just making more money to go to meetings and the road builders are building fewer projects each year. So I’m not sure if the asphalt and concrete folks are working on it, but the other consultants probably don’t care beyond being frustrated. The WisDOT folks say this has been pushed by the feds, but it is my understanding that Wisconsin choose this slow and costly route. It could be that the regional FHWA office pushed for this direction, but a more cost efficient route would have been to simply expect the locals to have obey the state and federal rules and if they don’t, FHWA and WisDOT don’t reimburse them on the projects.

      • CK says:

        Is this something that BikeFed is actively working to change?

      • daveschlabowske says:

        See my response to Sonia about the local management. See the follow-up post concerning the bigger picture issues.

  3. Barry Stuart says:

    It doesn’t look to me that our Congressional and legislative representatives are doing a very good job of fighting for our fair share of tax money. Certainly, the hard-core suburban and rural Republicans aren’t going to send tax money to urban areas to improve their transportation systems, whether it be for buses, trains, or bikeways. The ‘burbs were built by the car and freeways. Too many politicians determine policy by who kicks in to their war chests.

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