2018 BUILD Grants Maintain Proportion of Projects With Active Transportation Elements

December 20, 2018

Last week USDOT announced $1.5 billion in BUILD surface transportation project funding, including many projects with active transportation and traffic calming elements. DOT does not indicate a project type category for active transportation BUILD projects, but many roadway (and one transit) projects include bicycle infrastructure, traffic calming, and even sidewalk expansions. Of the 91 BUILD grantee projects announced last week, 27 of the projects (30 percent) include some element relating to bicycles, pedestrians, or complete streets. 24 mention pedestrians or sidewalks, 15 mention bicycles, and four mention complete streets (obviously there is overlap).

Compared to 2017 grants, a similar proportion of the awarded projects include an element of bicycle, pedestrian, or complete streets. Last year, 32 percent of the projects included an active transportation or complete streets element, which amounted to $149.7 million in FY17 and is up to $327 million in FY18. That is 31 percent of the total BUILD funds in 2017 and 22 percent of the funds in 2018, but this number doesn’t mean much since most projects are connected with road and bridge projects where the majority of the money allocated isn’t going to the bicycle or pedestrian element of the project.

One exception to the trend of vehicle-centric projects with bicycle or pedestrian add-ons is the City of Hickory, NC project to build complete streets and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure including at-grade infrastructure and a bike/ped bridge over US 321 (the project does also include broadband installation). The city is receiving $17m (77 percent of the total project cost) for the improvements.

However, most of the projects that include bicycle or pedestrian infrastructure elements still focus on design for vehicular travel. There are few projects such as the Hickory, NC project or the City of Waterville, ME traffic calming and pedestrian infrastructure projects that focus on vulnerable road users and include redesign of entire roadways for complete streets projects, trails, and sidewalks. There are many more projects that instead silo the modes and add in bicycle or pedestrian elements, such as those that will fix sidewalks at the same time as widening or repaving roads, without looking at an integrated transportation network and how design can influence mode choice and safety.

The Colorado South Midland Avenue project, for example, widens vehicle lanes which encourages driving at higher speeds and thus presents more danger to pedestrians, but the project also includes the addition of 6-foot wide detached sidewalks. The project description claims added pedestrian safety, and leaving a buffer space between the pedestrian infrastructure and wider vehicular travel lanes is one approach to reconciling the conflicting safety implications of the two design choices. This type of design element is critical as encouraging walking to raise pedestrian volumes in unsafe conditions could culminate in new negative safety outcomes for pedestrians.

Of the money allocated to all of the projects that include infrastructure for vulnerable road users, the proportion of how much of those dollars is directly spent on the active transportation elements of the project is relatively small compared to vehicular elements. Bicycle lanes are narrower than vehicle lanes, and most often painted on existing paved right-of-way. Traffic calming and sidewalks projects are also generally less expensive because they do not require new right-of-way or extensive construction elements. The return on investment for these projects can therefore be quite high. Complete streets, traffic calming, and active transportation projects can benefit all users of the roadway. They must be well designed, though, as some projects include bicycle and pedestrian elements but may not in fact improve safety for all road users. To this end, more studies, especially longitudinal before and after (and after after) experimental designs would greatly aid both agencies when prioritizing projects, and DOT when evaluating proposals.

Thirty percent of BUILD projects is a substantial proportion of projects to include aspects of vulnerable road user infrastructure, especially when considering that other eligible projects, such as maritime projects and long distance rail, have few opportunities to incorporate active transportation users. Bicycle and pedestrian projects often have fewer funding sources available than vehicular-centric roadways projects, and are generally significantly cheaper then interchanges, lane building, and auto-carrying bridges and tunnels. (Ed. Note: Funding bike/ped projects from the Highway Trust Fund has always been contentious because bicyclists and pedestrians don’t pay excise taxes into the Trust Fund for that use – but since BUILD grants come from the general fund of the Treasury, that whole line of argument is irrelevant here.) Projects that include all road users in their BUILD applications can harness the federal funds to improve safety and efficiency in their transportation systems for everyone.

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