How Do We Fund Complete Streets?

One of the biggest stumbling blocks we run across in Topeka (and everywhere else) when trying to convince council members and other decision makers to embrace more bike-friendly roadways is the dreaded money question.  ”That’s all well and good, but how do we pay for it?”

Even in Portland, Oregon, a city where one cannot swing a dead cat without hitting a cyclist (or three), the same concerns dominate the discussion.  However, there are some great resources to consider, and to bring to the attention of lawmakers when having this conversation.  The following is a post which originally appeared on directing advocates for cyclist friendly streets towards some excellent strategies to bring to the table when it comes time to address the money question:

As the “Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030″ moves toward City Council adoption, the question that moves front and center is “how do we pay for it?”

The estimated price tag runs into hundreds of millions of dollars over 20 years – but is still small in comparison to our other transportation investments. In a discussion on Bike Portland, editor Jonathan Maus lamented that

“… this is about a game of politics and money and so far it looks like bike people are simply being outplayed… which is too bad because we all agree bikes are the best investment and they have the most beneficial impact on our city.”

I do agree that bikes have the greatest potential to reshape our transportation landscape at the lowest cost – and have vocally said so as the plan moved through the Planning Commission, even to the point of saying that I would give priority to bicycle funding over Streetcar funding (but I also believe that they will very seldom be in direct competition).

So if we need to play a better game, what are the lessons we can take from Streetcar and other transportation initiatives that have been successful in attracting funding?

Here are some thoughts gleaned from what I’ve observed over the last decade advocating for a variety of transportation projects:

Federalize the Effort

Roads and Transit have dedicated federal funding from the Highway Trust Fund (gas taxes are the primary source of these funds, but Congress is now getting into the habit of supplementing this with general revenues as gas tax buying power declines).

This is a critical factor, because elected leaders will quite rationally invest local dollars where they will leverage new money into the community. If $40 of local funds will bring in $60 of “New Starts” federal money for Light Rail, guess how hard leaders will work to find that $40.

Where is the advocacy for a Federal bike funding program? None existed for Streetcar, so we helped create a national Community Streetcar Coalition (former Lake Oswego Mayor Judie Hammerstad chairs it) with over 60 cities looking at streetcar investments advocating for federal involvement. This resulted in the creation of the “Small Starts” program from which Portland just received $75M for the Streetcar Loop project – the first Federal Transit Administration Streetcar grant.

For cycling, we won’t need to invent a national advocacy organization – the League of American Cyclists has existed for more than a century. Portland advocates need to get busy with the League to plot a congressional strategy for a dedicated funding program for bicycle infrastructure. Then let’s get our projects in at the front of the line.

[BTW – why is there no one from the USA’s premiere cycling city on the board of the League?]

There’s an interesting immediate opportunity emerging here. Transit projects have previously been allowed to use Federal funds for bike and pedestrian improvements that help get folks to the transit line, but those improvements had to be relatively close to the transit line. Now, under the auspices of the joint urban livability effort between HUD and the US DOT, the definition is being expanded. According to a proposal in the Federal Register (PDF, 59K), FTA is seeking comment on extending the ‘catchment area’ distances to one half mile for pedestrian improvements and 3 miles for bicycle improvements.

How much of Portland’s proposed bicycle network is within 3 miles of proposed high capacity transit corridors? A lot. Portland advocates should:

  1. Immediately comment favorably on the FTA proposal. (I have)
  2. Get out their compasses and figure out the 3-mile envelope around the Milwaukie LRT and Lake Oswego Streetcar corridors (the next two projects that will seek FTA funding). Let’s try to get all the improvements in those areas matched 60/40. Yes, you’ll have to convince TriMet and others to expand the project definitions and help assemble more local match, but as I said before, local leaders are all about bringing home more Federal dollars.

Regionalize the Effort

The history of transportation funding in this region suggests that Portland-specific efforts are always met with a degree of skepticism at JPACT. Projects that reach all parts of the region do better.

It’s not a random occurrence that the most recent Light Rail project, and the next one, both touch Clackamas County – it’s “their turn”. It’s also not coincidental that the next Streetcar line in the pipeline will go to Lake Oswego.

Portland advocates need to work with the rest of the regional and get cycling projects moving all over the region. Metro’s Intertwine effort is an ideal framework for this.

This will also help with the Federal effort. JPACT travels back to DC and speaks with one voice to the Congressional delegation, and that voice better talk about bikes if we want to be successful in creating a significant Federal funding program.

Localize the Effort

Every successful rail transit project has a local stakeholder committee, including prominent representation from businesses along the alignment. We are beginning to see this kind of advocacy around major trail projects (Sullivan’s Gulch, North Portland Greenway) but we need to deepen this and get it going for more projects – probably in ways that are less about linear corridors and more about local networks. Can we get a stakeholder group formed for strengthening the bike network in a whole neighborhood or sector of a the City?

And we MUST make the connection between good cycling environments and property values. Local Improvement Districts (where property owners levy a fee on themselves to pay for a portion of the project) are the cornerstones of Streetcar project funding. We need to get an economist hired to do a serious study correlating bike traffic volumes with property values NOW.

What Else?

Watch the evolving landscape. Some kind of carbon cap-and-trade system is in our future. Let’s position bike projects as effective investments for offsets. Transit leaders are already thinking about this.

Lottery Funds. TriMet has successfully lobbied to use bonding capacity from the State Lottery to fund first the West Side extension and now the Milwaukie line. The Governor and Legislature have also allocated $100M of Lottery bonding capacity to non-road transportation (”Connect Oregon”) in each of the last two sessions. Can we convince the Legislature to use some Lottery bonding for bike projects?

Think about how we sell this to the public. I made the comment during the Planning Commission work session that my family pays (happily) about $250/year for the library levy. That helps fund about a $50M annual budget (for the whole county). We need about $25M (for Portland) annually to build out the bicycle plan. If citizens will vote to fund the library, how do we convince them to vote to fund cycling at a comparable level?

So what are we waiting for?