Monday, August 18, 2014

The TIP takes a turn toward maintenance

As part of the process of updating Communities in Motion, the regional long-range transportation plan for Ada and Canyon Counties, the COMPASS Board of Directors chose to focus federal funding allocated through the Communities in Motion 2040 plan on maintaining the current transportation system.

The FY2015-2019 Regional Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), open for public comment through September 9, 2014, is the first TIP developed under this new direction from the COMPASS Board. This focus on maintenance affects the projects you will see – or not see – in this draft TIP. Understanding what this means, how the funding process works, and why the COMPASS Board made this decision will help you as you review and comment on the draft TIP.

First, it’s important to understand what types of projects are in the TIP, how they are funded, and which types of funding the “focus on maintenance” applies to. There are many, many types of funding…I’ve greatly over-simplified and lumped them into three categories:

1.  Federal Surface Transportation Funding (STP). This is the largest, and most flexible, “pot” of federal funding the area receives. By “flexible,” I mean it can be used for the widest variety of projects. It is this STP funding that the “focus on maintenance” applies to; the funds are split between roadway/bridge (82%), public/alternative transportation (15%), and planning/special projects (3%). Some STP funds are also taken “off the top” for specific purposes.

2.  Other federal funds. These include a myriad of federal funds, many of which are dedicated to specific types of projects, including Federal Transit Administration funds for public transportation projects, funding for safety projects, and funding for bicycle, pedestrian, and other alternative transportation projects. While the STP funds are very flexible, these funds are generally not, and are not included under the “focus on maintenance” direction. However, because STP funds are flexible, the same types of projects funded with these “other” funds can often also be funded with STP funds. So, for example, in the TIP you will see some public transportation projects funded with STP funds (therefore, they are maintenance projects) and other public transportation projects funded with Federal Transit Administration funds (they may or may not maintenance projects).

3.  Local/state funding. Very broadly, these are all funds that are not federal funds. They come from state fuel tax, local property tax, registration fees, and more. Some, but not all, of these projects are listed in the TIP, based on a variety of criteria including type, size, and location of the project.

Next, it’s important to understand how “maintenance” is defined in this context. “Maintenance” goes far beyond filling potholes. Simply put, in this context, a “maintenance” project is any project that does not expand the existing transportation system. The funds can be used to improve safety, rebuild bridges, replace or maintain buses, resurface roads, and, yes, fill potholes. In addition, certain projects that are “opportunistic” can be done within the focus on maintenance. For example, completing a missing portion of a bike lane or sidewalk could be included in a road maintenance project, even though these projects are technically adding something “new.” It is just simply the practical thing to do to be the most efficient with the funding we have.

Finally, it’s important to note that this doesn’t apply to any projects that were already in the TIP. The TIP is a five-year budget, so projects often first appear in the TIP several years before they are scheduled to begin. For example, a project scheduled for this year (2014) may have first appeared in the FY2010-2014 TIP, which was adopted by the COMPASS Board in November 2010. The focus on maintenance only applies to new projects in FY2015-2019 TIP (and future TIPs), so the shift is gradual. While most new projects in the FY2015-2019 TIP are maintenance, many projects that were already scheduled/budgeted are not. More maintenance projects will be added each year as existing capital (e.g., construction) projects are completed.
Over 90% of the new projects in the draft FY2015-2019 TIP are maintenance projects, funded with STP funds, as described above. The remaining 10% are paid for with other federal and local funding sources.

Now that we’ve discussed what this means and how it is applied, we have the bigger question of “why” – with our rapidly growing population, why did the COMPASS Board choose to focus federal funding on maintenance? Why not focus on new projects? While I do not want to attempt to speak for each Board member, three main reasons were the center of the discussion:

1.  We need to maintain what we have before building something new. Just as a person likely wouldn’t spend money to repaint his car if he couldn’t afford to change the oil, the Board felt it was important to first make sure we are keeping what we have in good working order.

2.  Preventive maintenance costs less than fixing something that is “broken.” Using the same car example, it is much less expensive to pay to change the oil on a regular basis than to forgo maintenance and have to replace a ruined engine. Spending money on preventive maintenance now costs less than having to completely rebuild or replace a section of roadway or bridge later. 

3.  “New” things must also be maintained. Just as happened with some highly publicized “free” car giveaways, winners of those free cars were not able to keep them because they couldn’t afford the costs of owning and maintaining the car. The same is true with public infrastructure. Costs don’t end when something is built or acquired…ongoing costs are just beginning. 

I hope this will help you as you review the draft TIP, and notice a decrease in construction and other capital projects and an increase in maintenance. Please take a few minutes to review and comment on the projects in the TIP – maintenance and otherwise – and tell us if you agree with the proposed projects. Click here to review and comment; comments are due no later than Tuesday, September 9, 2014.

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Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho

COMPASS is the designated Metropolitan Planning Organization responsible for transportation planning in Ada and Canyon Counties. The COMPASS Board comprises 39 members representing the cities, counties, highway districts, educational institutions, state agencies, and other entities within the two counties. COMPASS plays an important role in making decisions about future long-range transportation needs in the Treasure Valley, taking into consideration environmental and economic factors that affect the quality of life.