With the major U.S. federal transportation law, 2012’s MAP-21 (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century), expiring this October 1, activity is gearing up to decide what is next for the nation’s streets, highways, and transit systems. The biggest headache will be funding. Federal taxes on motor fuels are failing to generate enough revenue to maintain even current spending levels.

But not everything of significance comes with a billion-dollar price tag. A flurry of activity in late January and February introduced several low-cost, seemingly small initiatives that could have an outsized effect on U.S. communities. Moreover, all are designed to support communities as they reshape themselves to meet growing demand for healthy living and to increase transportation safety for all, including people walking and bicycling.

New Opportunities

One initiative is the New Opportunities for Bicycle and Pedestrian Infrastructure Financing Act of 2014 (H.R. 3978)—introduced by Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) and cosponsored by Reps. Andre Carson (D-IN), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). The bill would build on one of MAP-21’s success stories, the dramatic expansion of the federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan and loan guarantee program. The $1.75 billion authorized over two years for TIFIA offers an estimated $17 billion in credit assistance. TIFIA applications have rolled in, most seeking support for toll roads, though the program is also investing in transit projects and even the Chicago Riverwalk.

The Chicago Riverwalk initiative showcases how transformative and creative TIFIA projects can be. The city is building a continuous walkway along an additional six blocks of the Chicago River, connecting the lakefront to the center of downtown. In addition to expanding the pedestrian network, the project includes recreational amenities and retail space. Each block of riverfront will become its own place with a distinctive identity.

Working closely with the U.S. Department of Transportation, the city secured a $99 million TIFIA loan in only eight months, and “a project that usually would have taken 15 years, the city will be able to do in four,” says Gabe Klein, former Chicago transportation commissioner and currently a visiting fellow with the ULI Rose Center for Public Leadership. The city will use rent and user fees to pay back the loan, enabled in part by rebidding the tour boat access fees.

However, TIFIA’s $50 million project minimum excludes many worthwhile and financially feasible projects—mainly pedestrian and bicycle projects—simply because they do not need to be massive to achieve results. To address this gap, the New Opportunities bill would set aside $11 million of TIFIA funding for a two-year pilot project that encourages implementation of smaller projects by lowering the project minimum to $2 million. Twenty-five percent of the funds would be prioritized for projects in low-income communities.

New Opportunities would look to finance projects that complete pedestrian and bicycle networks or expand bike-sharing programs. Street redesign also would be eligible, and the bill specifically identifies the solutions featured in the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Street Design Guide.

Like TIFIA, New Opportunities would encourage public/private partnerships and local solutions to generate revenue. “This novel approach will add another tool in the toolbox for mayors, governors, and private investors to reinvigorate their communities and develop a strong, vibrant middle class,” says Sires.

Safe Streets Act

On February 7, Senators Mark Begich (D-AK) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced the Safe Streets Act of 2014 (S. 2004), a companion bill to the House’s H.R. 2468, introduced with bipartisan support by Reps. Doris Matsui (D-CA) and David Joyce (R-OH) in June 2013. The bills would require state and metropolitan planning organizations to adopt complete streets policies, considering the safety of all users, for federally funded projects.

A supporter of the complete streets approach since he was mayor of Anchorage, Alaska, Begich says, “These policies lead to safer roads, less traffic congestion, higher property values, and healthier families.”

(For more on complete streets and the Urban Street Design Guide, see “Embracing the Street.”)

The Partnership for Active Transportation

The Partnership for Active Transportation shows the breadth of growing interest in expanding federal support for bicycling and walking. A coalition of organizations interested in transportation, public health, economic development, and community vitality, the partnership was launched February 11 with the release of its platform on Capitol Hill. After opening remarks by Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI), chair of the subcommittee on Highways and Transit, and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), delegate to the U.S. House, leaders of the partnership explained how active transportation promotes healthy people and healthy economies.

The group’s platform, “Safe Routes to Everywhere: Building Healthy Places for Healthy People through Active Transportation Networks,” focuses on how the federal government can support expanding bicycle and walking networks, advance safe mobility for all, and encourage healthy, active lifestyles. Though one-quarter of all trips in the United States are less than a mile and 12 percent of trips are already made on foot or by bicycle, less than 1.5 percent of federal surface transportation funding goes to improving networks for bicycling and walking. Adding just another penny and half of every federal transportation dollar to improving bicycle and pedestrian networks “would transform communities across the country,” the platform asserts.

Members of the Partnership for Active Transportation include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, America Walks, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and LOCUS, a national advocacy network of real estate developers and investors. ULI is a member of the partnership’s advisory committee.

“LOCUS has recognized the need for more tools at the federal level that will help to build what the market wants. Across the country, we’ve seen how trails and networks for biking and walking allow the real estate industry to sell products more quickly or to retain tenants. They are key to any successful transit-oriented development,” said Christopher Coes, managing director of LOCUS. “During these fiscally constrained times, LOCUS believes greater private/public partnerships could stretch federal dollars and unlock the economic potential of transit-oriented, walkable development.”

Action in 2014

At a time when many Americans are losing faith that Democrats and Republicans in Congress can agree on anything, the fact that walking and bicycling are garnering bipartisan support offers a feeling of hope. With MAP-21 expiring and funding running out as soon as August, Congress will have to take action in 2014. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, wants to do more than just kick the can down the road. She has signaled her intention, with ranking member Senator David Vitter’s (R-LA) agreement, to get a policy bill out of her committee by April. If Boxer and Vitter are successful, all eyes will then turn to the Senate Finance Committee, which is in charge of finding new revenues. Taking on the funding conundrum in an election year will be a tough hill to climb, but along the way, support can mature for other policy innovations.