Safe Routes to School National Partnership reported earlier this month that NJ lost $6.2 million in TAP funds this past October 1. There were four states in the nation who lost these funds, and New Jersey lost the highest amount. The loss is termed a “lapse” and refers to federal funds allocated to New Jersey that expired and thus, were returned to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) from the state.
TAP (Transportation Alternatives Program) are federal transportation funds that are awarded to states for “construction, planning, and design of on-road and off-road trail facilities for pedestrians, bicyclists, and other nonmotorized forms of transportation, ” among other similar uses. New Jersey receives close to $17.5 million each year in TAP funds, which are also used to fund the state’s Safe Routes to School program.
TAP funds are then awarded to towns and counties through competitive solicitation rounds organized by NJDOT and the state’s three MPOs. Towns and counties submit applications for funds to implement bike and pedestrian infrastructure projects, such as bike lanes, greenways and shared use paths, crosswalks, bumpouts, countdown signals and other traffic calming devices. As TAP is a reimbursement program, towns must complete the projects and then apply for reimbursement of the project costs.
This lapse in funding dates back to TAP grants awarded in 2014, according to SRTSNP. These funds were awarded to municipalities and counties to complete bike and pedestrian projects, and the awardees never claimed the reimbursement; it is likely that they never undertook the work. The typical reason for not claiming these funds is that most towns and some counties do not have the capacity to meet the myriad and complicated federal regulations required to receive these funds. Therefore, even when a town receives the award, they never complete the project or the process to claim the funds.
NJDOT dedicates substantial resources to administration of the TAP program, in issuing the solicitations, in reviewing and selecting applications for awards, in providing presentations and workshops on the requirements of the program, and in providing a pool of consultants to assist towns in the development of plans, specifications and estimates.
The NJBWC along with our partners has had ongoing dialog with NJDOT’s Office of Local Aid since 2012 to provide input on ways that the department could better assist towns in submitting viable applications for bicycle and pedestrian projects. We have also participated in grant preparation workshops, information sessions at our annual Bike & Walk Summit, discussions related to organizing the consultants pool, researching how other states use these funds, and finally, in 2015, successfully campaigning for some of these funds to be used by counties on larger regional projects. We have fully supported the department’s efforts in getting TAP solicitation rounds issued, and we applauded the projects that were being awarded.
But the state cannot risk another year of a lapse in federal TAP funds. The loss of these funds is a missed opportunity of monumental proportions. Consider the economic, health and environmental benefits to communities and the lives that could have been saved through projects that this $6.2 million would have funded: street infrastructure for entire corridors where pedestrian crashes and fatalities are high; off-road greenway projects that connect communities and provide opportunities for recreation, exercise and commuting, including in underserved communities where access to mass transit and to safe areas for recreation can be a challenge; first and last mile connections to the state’s 162 train stations, to name a few. In addition, the overhead that NJDOT spends to administer this program, only to have over a third of the awards in 2014 lapse, is a waste of precious state resources.
Here are some suggestions for the state to consider in the coming months, under a new gubernatorial administration, to avoid another lapse in TAP funds:
- Assign additional state resources to assist towns and counties in going through the federal process, including monitoring towns that have received the awards and ensuring that they are making steady progress towards project completion. Be ready to pull back awards when towns have not reached specific milestones by certain dates, so that these funds can be awarded elsewhere.
- Use these federal funds for all phases of projects, from inception through to construction: planning, feasibility, concept work, design and construction, so that projects are funded end-to-end, rather than the disjointed structure used today, where TAP funds are used for final design and construction, while funding for the initial planning and concept work is often a struggle to locate. Using TAP for all phases of projects will ensure that resources are entrenched in the projects from end-to-end, making the process more efficient and the projects more likely to be completed.
- Continue to focus on larger, regional projects that are managed by counties, who have the capacity to manage federal funds. In addition to the benefits of larger projects in their own right, these projects provide incentive for towns to initiate smaller scale projects of their own that connect to these larger projects; they change local citizen minds from “no” to “yes,” creating advocates and changing the collective mindset of communities, making the next projects that much easier to accomplish.
Here are a few of these regional-scale projects from around the state:
- Capital-to-Coast Trail, running from Trenton to Manasquan, crossing through two counties and two MPOs
- Bloomfield Avenue from Newark to the Caldwells, one of the most dangerous roads in the state’s most dangerous county for pedestrian fatalities, Essex County
- Continuing the build-out of the Circuit Trails in Mercer, Camden, Burlington and Gloucester counties.
- Funding the Northern Valley Greenway
- Essex-Hudson/Ice & Iron Greenway in Essex and Hudson Counties
- Cape May County’s budding trail network
Those towns that do not have the capacity or political will to undertake a TAP awarded project can use state Municipal Aid funds in lieu of the TAP funds for local bike and pedestrian projects. These are state funds that are awarded to towns for repaving projects; likewise with County Aid funds for county road. NJDOT has added bike and pedestrian projects to the criteria that these funds can also be used for, in addition to repaving, and these funds are easier to receive and administer.
TAP is successfully administered in all states in the country under various programs. New Jersey is to be applauded for continuing to commit resources to the TAP program; however, the state must step up this effort by focusing on plugging holes in the program, and perhaps the new administration will afford that opportunity.
Cyndi Steiner, Executive Director