Guest Blog from Tri-State Transportation Campaign: Follow the Money

profile pic.jpgUnlocking State Transportation Spending is Key to Greater Transportation Equity

The reauthorization of the next federal transportation bill offers an opportunity to win a more environmentally sound and socially just national transportation policy. However, even with drastic changes in the next federal transportation bill, transportation spending decisions will largely remain in the hands of Governors, State Legislators and state and local transportation agencies. As long as states are responsible for building, maintaining and operating our transportation system, they remain the lynchpin for any lasting reform.

Tracking how each state allocates its transportation dollars can be a daunting task 

This information can often resemble a set of coded ledgers as thick as a telephone book, buried in DOT websites. However, a growing movement of transportation reformers is pushing back, applying public scrutiny and demanding accountability about the flow of hundreds of millions of transportation dollars each.

Tracking State Transportation Spending and Winning Reforms
Tri-State's success in winning transportation reforms at the state level lies partly in our hard-hitting analysis of transportation spending, projects and policies that otherwise go unnoticed. We are constantly de-coding, translating and updating state transportation capital plans, transit investments, pedestrian fatality data, and transportation projects for the public through our blog, Mobilizing the Region. In particular, Tri-State's analysis of planned capital spending in New Jersey and Connecticut have heightened attention to the region's transportation system and led to a significant shift in DOT spending.

Federal law requires states to report how federal dollars are allocated 

Every two years the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) report is generated. Projects that are funded solely though state and local funding are not required to be reported in the STIP. Some states record both; some only include the minimum required by law. Since federal dollars provide, on average, 60% of a state's transportation revenue, tracking the allocation of federal dollars is still an effective way to uncover transportation spending decisions.  

Allocation of Capital Funds

 

If you know how to de-code it and the right data to look for, the STIP can show you:

How much the state is spending on highway expansion vs. maintenance and repairs

How the state is spending flexible federal dollars (for highways, roads, transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects)

Condition of the state's bridges and roads (good, fair, poor)

 

Analysis Leads to Successful Reform in State Spending

In 1996, Tri-State found that nearly 50% of NJDOT's budget went to building new highways. We used this data to launch a "fix-it-first" campaign that built public pressure in the media and on key decision makers in the state and by 2000, Governor Whitman and legislators passed legislation mandating repair on half of the state's roads and bridges over five years. Today, New Jersey is spending 5% on new highways with the rest on maintenance, repair, transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects.  

Similarly in Connecticut, Tri-State's 2007 report on ConnDOT exposed state transportation dollars trending away from maintenance and repair toward highway expansion. A year later, through aggressive public outreach and a media campaign around our report findings, we were able to influence the selection of a new ConnDOT Commissioner who recognized the need for greater transit investment in the state.

Strengthening Transportation Advocacy Capacity and Tools  

Earlier this year, Tri-State asked some of the country's leading transportation advocates how they tackle state transportation reforms and what tools can help their work.

First, advocates need a way to share information that could help advance their own state work. Currently, there is no formal network among state groups to facilitate this. Tri-State published a transportation reform success stories in an April 2010 report, "State Transportation Reform: How Advocates are Winning" to begin to share best practices. A web-based clearinghouse dedicated to state transportation reform can serve as a repository of policies, best practices and advocacy.

Second, collaboration across state lines can help raise issue profile of transportation reform work in each state. For example, transportation advocates can work together on: a) publishing a state DOT report card based on safety, transit investments, system maintenance and preservation, bicycle and pedestrian safety, etc; b) launching transit funding campaigns calling for long-term funding solutions for transit; c) creating a reform roadmap in each state 

Looking Ahead to the Next Federal Transportation Bill

When the next federal transportation bill is passed, state and local advocates alone will be left to watchdog its implementation. There needs to be a greater investment in transportation advocacy work to influence transportation decision making and spending at the state house. Consider what many environmental organizations spend on lobbying alone more than doubles entire budgets of national and local transportation groups combined. Imagine what could be accomplished if transportation advocates had access to the type and scale of resources comparable to those of the environmental movement?  

About the Author:

Ya-Ting Liu is the federal advocate for Tri-State Transportation Campaign. She serves as the field organizer for Transportation for America, a national coalition working for a more sustainable transportation policy and vision by transforming the next federal transportation bill. Ms. Liu also helps coordinate New York State Transportation Equity Alliance, a diverse, statewide coalition working for a more equitable federal transportation bill. As the region's federal transportation advocate, Ms. Liu has mobilized the advocacy community on key pieces of federal legislation including climate bill, complete streets and increased transit funding. She has a Masters in City Planning from MIT and a bachelor's degree in environmental science from UC Berkeley.

Do you have a state transportation reform success story to share? Email Ya-Ting Liu at yating@tstc.org 

Tri-State Transportation Campaign website