Almost everyone can point to an improvement they'd like to see on a roadway or street, or a trail connection or sidewalk gap they'd like to see filled.
On April 21, JPACT discussed how to allocate the next cycle of regional flexible funds. They are expected to adopt a final policy at their May 19 meeting. See what's in the latest proposal
Every few years, Metro has an opportunity to help make those projects happen with something called regional flexible funds – money from the federal government that can be used for a wide range of projects across the Portland region.
Compared to what transportation projects cost, it's not a lot of money – around $130 million to spend over three years – but it can help with crucial gaps and long-awaited fixes, as well as regional and local priorities that don't have other clear funding avenues.
Just like many of us benefit from transportation decisions made decades ago, decisions we make now will affect how future generations get around a growing region. So how do we make the most of what we have to address our biggest challenges today?
In 2016, Metro will convene a conversation on just that topic as we look to allocate another round of regional flexible funds. What priorities and projects are eligible? What difference can it make? Here are some basic questions and answers about the flexible funds.
How much money do we get to spend?
It varies from cycle to cycle. For this funding cycle, Metro expects around $130 million to be available to spend on regional and local transportation projects over three years from 2019 through 2021. That might sound like a lot, but regional flexible funds are a relatively small portion of the total amount of transportation dollars spent in the region – just five percent, on average.
If they're such a small piece of the pie, why are they important?
Regional flexible funds do represent just a small piece of the region's total funding pie. But that pie is shrinking, with less and less local, state and federal money available.
So the flexible funds can have a big impact, if we’re smart about how we spend them. And they're one of the few funding sources that can be used specifically to build projects that help people walk, bike and access transit safely and easily.
Where does money for regional flexible funds come from?
These funds come from three federal grant programs:
- Surface Transportation Program funds may be used for projects to preserve and improve conditions and performance on public roads, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and transit capital projects.
- Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality Program funds may be used for surface transportation projects and other related efforts that contribute air quality improvements and provide congestion relief.
- Transportation Alternatives Program funds may be used for programs and projects defined as transportation alternatives, including on- and off-road pedestrian and bicycle facilities, infrastructure projects for improving non-driver access to public transportation and enhanced mobility, community improvement activities and environmental mitigation.
What guides how the money gets spent?
Three sets of policies help shape how we decide to allocate regional flexible funds each cycle:
Several different groups help make the decisions, including:
- the public, through its feedback and input.
- Metro's Transportation Policy Alternatives Committee, which includes planning staff from local jurisdictions around the region as well as community advocates and residents.
- the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation, or JPACT, a committee composed of three Metro councilors, local elected officials from around the region and representatives of the region's major transportation agenices. JPACT issues the official recommendation for project funding.
- the Metro Council, which makes the final decision about funding allocations.
How have we allocated the money in the past?
As the name suggests, the region has had some flexibility in the policy priorities it sets for each cycle of regional flexible fund allocations – particularly when it comes to deciding which local projects to fund.
Usually the allocation process is split into two phases called Steps.
First, in Step 1, money is dedicated to region-wide programs and priorities like improving the flow of our existing transportation system through new technology, educating residents about travel options and paying down bonds on past transit investments. In the last cycle, these first-phase priorities received about half of the total $142.5 million available.
The rest of the money typically goes to specific projects in communities around the region, based on the policy criteria set by existing plans, JPACT and the Metro Council.
Different years have seen roadway improvements, sidewalks and trails, freight improvements, bikeways and high capacity transit studies all included in this phase, called Step 2.
JPACT and the Metro Council decided two cycles previously to devote 75 percent of Step 2 funds to active transportation projects -- that is, safety for people biking and walking -- and 25 percent to "freight and green economy" projects.
Local jurisdictions then submitted their priority projects through a competitive process. Twenty-one projects were ultimately selected by JPACT and the Metro Council, which gave its final OK in November 2013.
Related Metro News story (Nov. 8, 2013): Council awards $68 million in transportation funds, with a call for more support from state
Wasn't there a third step last time around?
People who follow transportation closely might remember an additional process in 2012 and 2013 with another $34 million available. That was a one-time event, due largely to changes in federal funding policy. The Metro Council and JPACT created something called the Regional Economic Opportunity Fund, targeting these funds to projects that directly supported economic development.
What are some example projects funded by regional flexible funds in the past?
The pages in this story series include examples of different projects funded over the years through this process, from a new gateway to Oregon City and better sidewalks in Cornelius to freight access in Troutdale and a new street in Beaverton.
They may have come from different years with different priorities – but each has contributed in some way to community livability, economic development and safety.
What's being proposed this time?
See the latest proposal here.
How much is $130 million for transportation projects?
It sounds like a lot. But many transportation projects are expensive. For comparison, here are some examples of other recent transportation projects in the region:
Regardless of which proposal is chosen, a coalition led by nine active transportation, health and community advocacy organizations is also pushing for a special dedication specifically for Safe Routes to School projects. Several school districts and jurisdictions around the region, including Tigard, Milwaukie and Beaverton, have endorsed this idea. The coalition counts 75 organizations, jurisdictions, businesses and elected officials among its supporters.
How can I participate?
Your voice is essential to ensuring that the Metro Council and JPACT choose priorities and projects that match the priorities of the people who live, work and travel in the Portland region.
You have several opportunities to participate over the next year.
First, in January, Metro held an online survey including several questions describing potential policy approaches for the flexible fund allocation process.
Later in 2016, additional public comment opportunities will seek input on regional flexible fund project proposals and inform the final allocation decisions.
Of course, you can also write to your local elected officials and Metro councilor to share your priorities and concerns.
When will the decisions be made? And when do projects get built?
Metro program managers expect that JPACT and the Metro Council will approve the policy approach for the allocations in May. That would open an application process in which local governments would try to show how their priority projects match the criteria JPACT and the Metro Council adopt.
There will probably not be enough money to go around to all the applications received, so applications will be competitively evaluated. After another public comment period, JPACT and the Metro Council should sign off on the final list of projects sometime in the fall.
But don't expect to see the construction trucks show up the next week. This process actually allocates federal funds that we can't spend until 2019. And sometimes it can take longer for local governments to be ready to make a project happen, whether because they need to find additional funding, timing with other projects or other considerations.
Learn more about regional flexible funds
This story has been updated to reflect revised federal funding forecasts as of March 8, 2016, which indicate that $130 million could be available for allocating, rather than $125 million.
This story was updated on April 21, 2016, to link to the latest allocation proposal. Several dates were also corrected.