Does Pittsburgh receive the same share of federal funds for biking and walking as the rest of the country? Part 1: A look at CMAQ

CMAQ funds much of Chicago’s on-street bicycle facilities like bike lanes, bike racks, cycle tracks, and the popular Millennium Park Bike Station shown here

This is the first in our series of funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects in the City of Pittsburgh.

Unless you live in Portland, OR, a city that’s been allocating a large percentage of their transportation budget to bicycle improvements, you most likely live in a city where the bulk of biking and walking projects come from federal sources designated to create or improve these facilities. One of these traditional sources of federal funds come from a program known as Congestion Management and Air Quality, or CMAQ (pronounced: “See Mack”). Every two years, the Federal Government accepts applications to CMAQ from cities, towns, and regions (via their Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO)) and we are about to embark on the next round of picking qualified projects. Cities who need to improve their air quality or reduce their congestion levels are eligible for CMAQ funds to help them meet their National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). Although Pittsburgh has one of the lowest levels of congestion in the country (the lowest delay per traveler of any city with over a million commuters), we have some of the worst air quality, which qualifies us for this funding which is aimed at improving air quality via transportation choices.

Regions around the country have been using these funds to do everything from fixing sidewalks, educating walkers and striping bike lanes, to widening highways, starting or sustaining ride-share programs, purchasing buses, and signalizing traffic lights. When the money is distributed, it falls into one of a number of categories, depending on what projects the region thinks are important and would like to fund.  The categories are Demand Management, Pedestrian/Bicycle, Shared Ride, Traffic Flow Improvements, Transit, and Other.

In order to make sure that certain categories don’t receive a disproportionately low amount of the available funding, many regions will “pre-set” the percentage of the money they plan to allocate between categories. This is done to make sure that smaller projects, most likely Pedestrian/Bicycle projects, don’t have to go head-to-head with major highway reconstruction projects, which tend to take up a bulk of the available funding. For instance, Chicago, which uses CMAQ to fund many of their bike/ped projects, allocates a percentage of their total to the Pedestrian/Bicycle category, before projects are even submitted, so that only bike/ped projects are competing against each other, and not against Chicago’s larger highway or transit CMAQ proposals.

Needless to say, accessing federal money is an important component in making a city bike-friendly. When you combine the opportunities that the federal funds offer with the political will to ask for the money and complete projects, you end up with the types of bike-friendly improvements that we have been championing for years. This equation of available money plus political will applies equally to highway expansion and road-widening projects as well.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania 10-county region

Here in the southwestern Pennsylvania region, we don’t “pre-set” the categories, and the results are fairly clear.  Between 2000 and 2009, our region has received a mere $25,000 in the category “Pedestrian/Bicycle,” for a Bicycle Suitability Map that our MPO, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (SPC) produced. Granted, since 2009, the Port Authority did receive some CMAQ money to help outfit every last bus with bike racks, but similar to “Park and Ride Lots,” which receive a large amount of CMAQ funds, this was categorized as “Transit” project. It’s also important to realize that some funds that are categorized as “Demand Management” go towards some of our Transportation Management Associations (TMA’s) to work on programs that benefit cyclists. For the sake of this blog post, we are simply looking at what has been categorized in the federal CMAQ database as bike/ped.

The Results

To help understand how this plays out in real life, BikePGH’s crack investigative team spent hours digging through the Federal Highway Administration’s CMAQ Public Access data to reveal some interesting trends. From 2000-2009, we’ve had one Pedestrian/Bicycle project funded by CMAQ out of a total of 179 projects, or 0.5% of all CMAQ projects over these 10 years.  In comparison, the number of “Traffic Flow Improvement Projects” is 88, or 49.1% in this same time period. These are typically road widening, signal timing, freeway surveillance, and intersection improvement projects. It’s also important to note that road widening projects do tend to relieve congestion in the short term, however, over the longer term, tend to actually increase the number of cars on a road while worsening the air quality, due to the phenomena known as induced demand.

Money makes it worse

When we added up the money to see where it has all gone, the disparity is even greater, since highway and road projects are extremely expensive.  Between 2000 and 2009, $181.1M of CMAQ funds were allocated to the region, with only 0.0138% of that money going toward the Pedestrian/Bicycle category, while 57.79% went to “Traffic Flow Improvement.”

What about the rest of the country?

National share of CMAQ projects (left) and Percentage of CMAQ funding by Project Category (right) for FY 2000-2005. Click image to enlarge. Source: FHWA website

These results are even more striking when you compare our region to the rest of the country.  The graph above shows the overall breakdown nationwide in terms of the number of CMAQ projects by category and the amount of funding by category.  Obviously, the bike/ped share goes down when you factor in money, because highway and transit projects are really expensive compared to the relatively low cost biking and walking projects.

It’s difficult to even compare to the same time period (2000-2005) because our singular project didn’t happen until 2007.  Regardless, here’s the breakdown in the Pittsburgh region (2000-2009):

Percentage of projects “Bicycle/Pedestrian”
  • National: 13%
  • Pittsburgh Region: 0.5%
Percentage of funding “Bicycle/Pedestrian”
  • National: 5%
  • Pittsburgh Region: 0.0138%
Percentage of projects “Traffic Flow Improvement”
  • National: 42%
  • Pittsburgh Region: 49.1%
Percentage of funding “Traffic Flow Improvement”
  • National: 32%
  • Pittsburgh Region: 57.8%

The chart below shows the top 20 “Biking+Walking” CMAQ eligible cities (based on the latest US Census data), plus a few places that can act as comparable cities to Pittsburgh, like Columbus, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Cincinnati, and Buffalo. Only Baltimore (at 0 percent) had a smaller percentage of CMAQ projects in the Pedestrian/Bicycle category.  The national average for this time period (2000-2009) is 10.4 percent.  This is significant because it means that, if the Pittsburgh region allocated at the level of the national average, we would have seen approximately 18 total Pedestrian/Bicycle projects, doubtless creating a major impact on our non-motorized infrastructure.

Note: there are some cities that made the “Top 20” that are not on this particular list because they are not eligible for CMAQ funds because they are in compliance with the federal air quality standards.


You can toggle between the tabs. To view this chart as a webpage, click here

Now what?

It’s not really clear why our allocation is so low. Perhaps municipalities aren’t aware that these funds even exist or that their bike/ped projects even qualify for funding so they are not applying in the first place. Is competition between Pedestrian/Bicycle projects and all of the other projects so fierce?  Do our region’s transportation decision makers simply place pedestrians and people on bicycles low on the list of priorities? Is our region ignoring its own Long Range Plans? Is the process simply too complex and discouraging?

The latest round of CMAQ applications were recently submitted.  Over the next few months, the local CMAQ committee will be picking the projects that they deem worthy of funding and submitting their recommendation to SPC’s Transportation Technical Committee for approval, and then on to SPC’s commissioners for a final OK. With Congressional attacks on biking and walking projects at the federal level and state funding for transit still uncertain, let’s hope that this round of CMAQ sees lots of solid applications for these types of projects.

Some notes on this post:

  • We chose the years 2000-2009 because this was the available data on the CMAQ site for the Pittsburgh region
  • The amount of money for non-Pedestrian/Bicycle projects is actually higher. There seemed to be some glitches in the reporting on the site, so these numbers aren’t reflected in the totals.  For instance, there was a SR 65/Avalon road widening project that claimed $24 from the CMAQ pool

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  • sloaps says:

    Nice stuff, erok.

    You’d think with the most lane miles than any other county in the Commonwealth, at 5816 miles, we’d have plenty of space for every vehicle to travel in, around and through Allegheny County? And due to having almost 2000 lane miles more than the next highest County – Lancaster @ 3902 miles – we’d have the least amount of particulate emissions from transportation sources, as they should never have an opportunity to idle. Isn’t that the logic?

  • StuInMcCandless says:

    It would be useful to point out all the bike/ped projects proposed on the last or latest TIP (Transportation Improvement Plan), add them all up, and compare that figure to similar amounts actually already spent on highway/bridge projects. Especially those which are mere capacity enhancements, not needed repairs.

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