On June 30th, the Federal Highway Administration delivered papers to all the state DOTs stating that they have until this Friday to come up with $2.5 billion dollars in unobligated federally apportioned funds and give them back. The bottom line is that the Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation has to identify about $46 million in unspent transportation funds and return the money to Washington.
This is what is known in government speak as a “rescission.” Regular readers of OTB got a Cliff Notes explanation of these funding terms in this recent post. The key to understanding how much we need to worry about this is in the terms “unobligated balances of Federal-aid highway funds apportioned to States.” Apportioned means money that the Feds gave the state the authority to spend. “Unobligated” refers to the fact that states rarely even plan to spend all of the money the feds apportion to them.
This is a little simplified, but basically since the states don’t spend all the money the feds say they will give them, over the years the states build up big balances of these unspent apportioned monies. So Wisconsin may have a $90 million balance of unobligated funds in the highway maintenance fund and a $50 million dollar balance in Transportation Enhancements and Congestion Mitigation Air Quality funds (TE and CMAQ, the funds that bike and pedestrian stuff is paid from).
When the feds call for a rescission, inequities come when states rescind a disproportionate amount from the CMAQ and TE funds and keep most of the balances in the traditional highway fund accounts. The League of American Bicyclists is concerned about this inequity and hence they are asking their members to contact elected representatives at the state level and tell them to leave these bicycle and pedestrian funds alone, or at least treat it fairly. The LAB is correct, and asking people to call about it is perfectly fair. Bicycle and pedestrian projects should not be treated like extras or easy programs to cut.
While this inequity is an important issue, it is more of an accounting issue at the time of rescissions than it is a real cut that will result in less money spent on bicycles. Realistically, these are funds we don’t really have sitting in a pile, and they are accounting balances we will likely never spend down. As much as I support calling elected officials often and saying the word “bicycle” in a positive light, I believe it is capricious and ineffective to spend precious political capital on an issue that will net no tangible benefit even if you make your point. Even if Wisconsin leaves its unspent balance of apportioned unobligated bike funds untouched in this round of rescissions, we will realistically never be able to spend that balance down.
In my opinion, the more effective way to address the dearth of funding for bicycle education and infrastructure is during the regular state budget process. That is when our state legislature sets the obligation limits and contract authority for the different funding sources the feds apportion for Wisconsin. We need to call our elected representatives during that budget process and tell them to stop capping the contract authority on CMAQ and TE funds at 50% (and lower) while spending 90% of the highway funds. If we can’t afford to spend all the apportioned federal funds, make an across the board cap at say 89% for highways, safety, bicycles and pedestrian programs.
Now the LAB feels that since Wisconsin has historically been one of the worst at spending all the money the feds apportion us for CMAQ and TE by setting those low caps during the budget process, it is very important not to further the inequities by rescinding more TE and CMAQ funds than highway funds. You don’t rub salt in a wound.
It is important to keep sight of the fact that this process has been going on in every administration since those bicycle funding sources were created with the ISTEA in 1991. In fact, there were higher rescissions of TE and CMAQ under previous Democratic control in Madison than there were under the current administration’s budget. So this has been a real problem for a long time and it continues to be a problem. So if you are an LAB member and got their action alert asking you to call or email your state legislators, feel free. I called a source at the WisDOT budget department, and as of 4pm yesterday, he was unaware of that any decisions had been made about which programs to cut. As I said, it never hurts to say the word “bicycle” in a positive light to an elected official.
I think that the really important time to make those calls was during the recent budget process when the legislature was deciding how much of the money they would allow the department to spend. This state budget has already been signed, so get yourself ready for the 2013-2014 to call and say “Bicycles have been bearing a disproportionate share of the cuts for years. In these times of high gas prices, low wages and endemic obesity problems, we need to spend every dollar on active transportation the feds give us. I vote, and I bike.”