The infrastructure law and boosting access to jobs and services

The infrastructure law and boosting access to jobs and services

a farmers market filled with pedestrians
Image from Pxfuel

The ultimate point of transportation spending should be to connect people to jobs and services. But that’s not what we primarily use as a measure of success and the new infrastructure law maintains the status quo of focusing on moving vehicles quickly as a (poor) proxy for access. This means that, absent some changes that USDOT can still make, states and communities will need to make the most of the flexibilities within the infrastructure law to advance multimodal access to jobs and services.

promo graphic for a guide to the IIJA

This post is part of T4America’s suite of materials explaining the 2021 $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which governs all federal transportation policy and funding through 2026. What do you need to know about the new infrastructure law? We know that federal transportation policy can be intimidating and confusing. Our hub for the new law will walk you through it, from the basics all the way to more complex details.

For decades, America has failed to accomplish the most foundational transportation policy goal: moving people (and goods) from one place to another. As it stands today, too many people are driving too far to reach jobs and essential services like schools or fresh food because we fail to measure access and all of our policies and measures incentivize speed of travel. American cities largely build infrastructure to move vehicles as far as possible, as fast as possible. Instead, we ought to measure success as “access.” At a base level, this just involves finding ways to measure the jobs and services people can access within a certain distance by any mode. And just as crucially, this approach isn’t just limited to measuring vehicles and considers all of the members of a community, regardless of how they get around or any limits to their mobility.

Prioritizing access to destinations in transportation planning will help reduce emissions, make our roads safer, promote public health through more walking, biking or rolling, connect more people to opportunity, and get more for our infrastructure dollars. However, despite the influx of cash and promises of innovation brought on by the 2021 infrastructure law, its programs remain painfully status-quo in their focus on vehicular movement and their lack of accountability. But even with that said, the law’s broad flexibility still allows state and local agencies that want to prioritize access to do so through the range of programs at their disposal.

What’s in the law?

Within the infrastructure law, there’s one dedicated program that directly addresses access to jobs and services in a significant way: USDOT will use the Transportation Access Pilot Program to work with a select number of states and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to measure the potential changes in accessibility to jobs and services for a wide spectrum of people and goods from transportation investments. This is a good starting point, and T4America strongly encourages USDOT to maximize the opportunities from this program to create a cultural shift in transportation planning and decision-making toward focusing on access. 

But this point should be made very clearly: Special programs or funds are NOT required to start prioritizing and improving access.

Nearly every single other large flexible formula program permits states, MPOs and localities to shift their emphasis toward improving access and make the best use of the available funding toward this end. If your state or agency plans to make this a priority, then all of your very flexible funding should be used to support that priority.

The Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) sets aside 10 percent of a state’s second biggest pot of funding (The Surface Transportation Block Grant Program) for projects that enable accessibility through modes other than driving. The Safe Routes to School program is designed to boost access to public primary and secondary schools (and can be funded through the flexibility provided in the core highway formula programs like NHPP, STBG, HSIP, CRP, CMAQ). The Reconnecting Communities Pilot and Active Transportation Infrastructure Investment competitive grant programs are both valuable resources that can be used to bring multimodal accessibility to areas fractured by divisive or vehicle-dependent infrastructure.

Since the formula-based programs below are not competitive, they are perhaps the best opportunities for states, MPOs and local governments to prioritize accessibility. Until USDOT makes some fundamental shifts away from the counterproductive measures that they currently use to measure success on specific projects, the onus will be on these state and local agencies to maximize these programs to improve access.

Formula programs

Program Authorized funding Can be used for: Should be used to:
Complete Streets set-aside Minimum 2.5% of state and MPO apportionments Multimodal streets and designated networks for active transportation (walking, cycling). Directly and comprehensively connect people with jobs, schools, housing, healthcare, childcare and community centers.
Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) $7.2 billion over five years. (10% of each state’s Surface Transportation Block Grant program funds) Recreational trails, bike/ped projects, micromobility, and other types of transportation alternatives. Expand and make accessible active transportation and micromobility networks centered around essential and popular destinations and integrate them with public transit.
Safe Routes to School Minimum $1 million apportionment to states (subject to appropriations), funding based on enrollment numbers for primary and secondary schools. States can leverage core highway formula funds to fund the program. Projects that enhance students’ ability to walk and bike to school. Connect schools with residential areas and community centers with active transportation networks.
Carbon Reduction Program $6.4 billion Planning, designing, and building on- and off-road active transportation facilities; roadway right-of-way improvements. Fund complete street designs that allow communities to access essential and popular destinations and integrate into public transit.
Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-saving Transportation (PROTECT) $7.3 billion (formula grant portion) Extreme weather resilience and emergency response infrastructure. Provide evacuation and recovery mobility to all road users. Build biking, walking, and rolling infrastructure into all resiliency plans and evacuation routes.
Bridge Formula Program $26.5 billion Replacing, rehabilitating, preserving, protecting, and construction highway and off-network bridges. Make sure that every bridge repaired under this program includes active transportation infrastructure, not just to check a box, but to connect to adjacent active transportation networks.

Competitive grant programs

The following programs are competitively funded (discretionary). Winning these grants is tied to strong local matching funds (at 20–50 percent of the project cost).

Program Authorized funding Can be used for: Should be used to:
Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program $200 million annually Planning and construction grants to reconnect communities divided by viaducts, highways or other principal arterials. (Highway teardowns, and other types of projects.) Make improving access the primary consideration as connections are rebuilt between communities, improve active transportation and transit access.
Active Transportation Infrastructure Investment Program $200 million annually, subject to appropriations Active transportation projects and planning grants that build upon a local/regional/state network. Focus networks around essential and popular community destinations and integrate them with transit facilities.
Transportation Access Pilot Program No specified amount, funded by USDOT’s operating budget Developing an accessibility data set, making that data set available, and establishing evaluation measures for states, MPOs and regional transportation organizations. Set accessibility measures centered around equitable outcomes.
Carbon Reduction Program $6.4 billion Planning, designing, and building on- and off-road active transportation facilities; roadway right-of-way improvements. Fund complete street designs that allow communities to access essential and popular destinations and integrate into public transit.
Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-saving Transportation (PROTECT) $7.3 billion (formula grant portion) Extreme weather resilience and emergency response infrastructure. Provide evacuation and recovery mobility to all road users. Build biking, walking, and rolling infrastructure into all resiliency plans and evacuation routes.
Bridge Formula Program $26.5 billion Replacing, rehabilitating, preserving, protecting, and construction highway and off-network bridges. Make sure that every bridge repaired under this program includes active transportation infrastructure, not just to check a box, but to connect to adjacent active transportation networks.

Outside of its funding streams, the infrastructure law introduces several policy changes that positively impact accessibility within existing laws. The Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program now more explicitly calls for the inclusion of projects that are within walking distance and are accessible to public transit systems. The State and Metropolitan Transportation Planning Act now calls for statewide and metropolitan agencies to coordinate transportation, housing, and economic development within their federally mandated plans.

What can the administration do to improve access?

The most important thing the administration needs to do on this count is to repeal their guidance for the value of time, which every agency uses to evaluate most transportation projects. This outdated measure incorrectly assumes that increased traffic speeds lead to time savings, when in fact it mostly just incentivizes sprawling development that spreads people and destinations apart, negating time savings as travel distances grow and grow. Instead, the administration should push for the adoption of data-driven accessibility-focused measures. We dive deep into this specific measure and offer four concrete recommendations for USDOT to follow in our blog post here.

Because Congress chose to make the new $3.2 billion Rural Surface Transportation program a competitive grant program, USDOT can shape this program to prioritize rural projects that actually improve access for more people rather than just the speed of travel for some people driving. This new program is designed to increase connectivity, improve safety, and facilitate the movement of goods and people, but many state DOTs just put forward simple highway expansion projects for rural areas that fail to measurably improve access in those communities. Rural communities deserve a better approach, as we’ve written. USDOT’s guidance for these rural competitive grants should require a multimodal approach and define connectivity, safety/reliability, economic growth and quality of life for drivers and nondrivers alike. 

The administration can also revise the Eligibility of Pedestrian and Bicycle Improvements Under Federal Transit Law to allow for bikeshare eligibility (and all shared micromobility for that matter) within the Section 5311 (rural transportation) program. While there are significant transit needs in rural communities, we should allow rural communities to decide for themselves about the best ways to improve access within their communities.

How can the new money advance our goals?

Climate

Assessing new transportation projects based on their accessibility benefits, rather than by travel time or level of service, could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Today’s predominant practices exacerbate sprawl and lead to longer trips overall, which is directly tied to increasing emissions. And while most road expansion projects are justified because of their supposed ability to reduce congestion and because of improvements to the “value of time” noted above, in the end they actually just produce more congestion on our roads. Since transportation and land use are so interconnected, integrating transportation and land use measures that combat sprawl and reduce vehicle miles traveled (and emissions) requires assessing projects for their effects on accessibility.

Equity

More often than not, disadvantaged communities bear the brunt of the safety and climate issues brought about by our focus on vehicle speed. As we noted in our post on the value of time measure above, “a highway that destroys a community (see I-49 in Shreveport) is easily justified on the grounds of time savings, even if locals lose 15 minutes having to walk out of their way to cross a now-dangerous street or can no longer walk to their destination at all because a new highway blocks their path. The impact to their time is literally never considered as part of the process of developing such a project.” This is just one example of how focusing instead on access would improve outcomes for more people, especially those who are most harmed by today’s current practices. Our focus should be on bringing more jobs and essential services within reach to those disadvantaged by today’s practices.

So what?

As is the case with many of our other goals, it’s now up to the state, regional or local governments receiving this funding to use it responsibly and to be held accountable for their projects. And there’s no reason why we can’t start to pivot to measuring access instead of leaning on outdated 1950s measures like vehicle speed. With the amount of data currently available that can be used to measure the accessibility benefits of projects, there is no excuse not to start transitioning toward this goal as our guiding light for transportation decisions. And local advocates should start pushing their agencies in this direction.

Source: The infrastructure law and boosting access to jobs and services

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