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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 58· No. 4 > The CMAQ Program: Realizing ISTEA's Promise

Spring 1995
Vol. 58· No. 4

The CMAQ Program: Realizing ISTEA's Promise

by Michael J. Savonis

The ISTEA Challenge

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991 makes dramatic changes in the way we view federal transportation funding.

ISTEA serves goals other than the traditional ones of safety and mobility. It created a new funding program that is intended to not only mitigate the undesirable environmental impacts of automobile travel but to make positive improvements in air quality through transportation projects -- a feat no one had ever accomplished. Thus, the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ) was born.

Under prior funding acts, federal investments in transportation were highly segmented. Highway funds were for highways; transit funds were for transit. There was almost no flexibility in the way those funds were to be used. Also, while consideration was given to other transportation services, such as bicycling and carpooling, relatively little support was directed to them.

Federal transportation funding was also very hierarchical before ISTEA. National priorities were set by Congress; state priorities were set in their capitals; and funding programs were designed and implemented to meet those various priorities. Largely missing were local concerns and local needs. The majority of transportation services is local, and the effects of urban sprawl, congestion, and air pollution are most keenly felt in our metropolitan areas.

In December 1991, Congress switched gears and passed the $155 billion ISTEA, representing a major change in direction. Flexibility is the cornerstone of this groundbreaking legislation -- flexibility to use "highway" funds for transit, "transit" funds for highways, and to generally fund a much broader array of transportation services with either.

But flexibility is not much good unless good decisions are made. That is why ISTEA fosters a needs-based process for determining transportation and funding priorities. It seeks to engender a more strategic use of funds through better planning, introducing new partners in transportation decision making, enhanced public involvement, and greater decentralization of the decision-making process by empowering metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to a greater extent.

CMAQ obligation by project type.

ISTEA's challenge is formidable. State highway agencies, local transit operators, and federal transportation organizations have a long history of relative isolation. Changing the organizational structures, analytical methodologies, administrative procedures -- and even psychological mindsets -- to fully deliver on ISTEA's promise will be difficult, taking great effort from all parties.

CMAQ -- The $6 Billmon Experiment

Since its creation, CMAQ has pushed the envelope of how federal transportation dollars are spent. It takes the concept of flexible funding to heart. A 1993 General Accounting Office report acknowledged that in its very first year, CMAQ was unsurpassed in its flexible use of funds. Through the first three years of this innovative program, it has accounted for $792 million of the $1.4 billion (57 percent) in "highway" funding that has been used for transit projects. In contrast, the much larger Surface Transportation Program (STP) has transferred only $355 million to transit. Meanwhile, no transit funds have been used for highway purposes.

The CMAQ program has virtually redefined what a transportation project is. In addition to more traditional efforts in traffic flow and transit improvements, CMAQ supports new and effective projects focusing on vehicles and fuels. The establishment of inspection and maintenance (I/M) programs -- estimated to reduce emissions by as much as 28 percent -- and the conversion of public fleets to cleaner fuels are eligible program activities. In the program's first three years, CMAQ funds were used to finance I/M-related activities in Indiana, Wisconsin, New Jersey, New York, Louisiana, and the District of Columbia. Several other states are contemplating similar uses.

Some CMAQ projects simply would not be possible under past -- or even other present -- funding programs. In Boston, CMAQ funds are being used to purchase electric vehicles and demonstrate their utility for travel to transit stations. This project shows that it is possible to completely eliminate the "cold start" problem -- the high emissions level caused by a cold engine -- associated with park-and-ride lots. Program funds are also being used to finance an intermodal service that transports freight from railroad cars in New York to a barge traveling to New Jersey. This service removes 54,000 truck trips annually from congested streets in New York City.

ISTEA recognized the benefit of promoting alternatives to single-occupant vehicle travel. In 1992 and 1993, more than $88 million in CMAQ funds were used to establish or expand shared-ride services; promote demand management strategies and employer trip-reduction programs; and support bicycle and pedestrian travel through better routes, sidewalks, and storage facilities.

Early in the program's life, serious concerns were raised that expenditures under CMAQ would lag behind the more traditional funding programs of STP and the National Highway System (NHS) under congressional spending limits. The fear was that states would spend up to their limits on traditional highway projects and would only as a last resort use CMAQ funds for some of the more innovative -- or "risky" -- projects.

In 1992, only $340 million of $809 million (42 percent) was obligated under CMAQ, but in 1993, this figure rose to $600 million. By 1994, the CMAQ obligation rate soared to 85 percent ($815 million of $962 million available). In just three years, the Federal Highway Administration had reached its goal to expend CMAQ funds at levels roughly comparable to the overall limitation (91.1 percent of authorized funds in 1994). CMAQ dollars now compete on a relatively even basis with the much larger STP ($24 billion) and NHS ($21 billion) programs.

CMAQ obligations, 1992-1994.

CMAQ has consistently been a front-runner in meeting other ISTEA goals. These funds must be used for projects in "nonattainment" areas -- areas failing to meet the national air-quality standards -- under the Clean Air Act. The nonattainment areas roughly correspond to our nation's urban areas. Thus, the CMAQ program was poised to better fulfill ISTEA's goal of decentralization and MPO empowerment.

According to a review of CMAQ conducted jointly by FHWA, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the summer of 1994, decentralization is taking hold. For the first time, state and local air-quality agencies have direct input into transportation planning. In many nonattainment areas, MPOs have developed strong local processes to develop plans and funding priorities to directly address their needs. The states in which these MPOs are located have become willing partners, ceding some of their traditional authority.

Moreover, many of the MPOs themselves have taken steps to invite new players -- environmental groups, bicycle advocates, and rideshare organizations -- to the table. In Chicago, for example, the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation is a member of the MPO advisory group and has been very successful in securing CMAQ funds. More than $11 million has been spent on projects to improve bicycle transportation in the city.

A Work in Progress

The CMAQ program has been in the forefront of ISTEA's effort to refocus the transportation planning process toward intermodalism. It is, by its nature, multimodal. It is a virtual requirement that other players, in addition to the highway and transit communities, be a part of its implementation. CMAQ's success in meeting the congressional mandates of ISTEA is documented in unprecedented flexibility and robust spending rates.

This success is to the credit of the many state, city, county, regional, and public interest groups that have worked hard to realize its potential. Further strides are still necessary. New players mean more coordination; more coordination means more meetings; and more meetings mean a great deal of time and effort. We need to continue the struggle to find better ways to smooth this process. While overall there has been a great measure of success, some states and MPOs remain frustrated by lengthy administrative procedures, a lack of staff, cumbersome organizational structures, and even restrictive state laws. Federal agencies need to assist them in their struggle by providing clear and timely direction in this great experiment.

Mike Savonis is a planner with more than 10 years of experience in transportation policy and planning. For the past three years, he has been program manager of the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program. With his FTA and EPA colleagues, he developed policy and eligibility criteria for the CMAQ program and was the primary author of the program guidelines. He also coordinated and principally authored the joint Department of Transportation-EPA report Clean Air Through Transportion: Challenges in Meeting National Air Quality Standards. Earlier, he worked for six years at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, where he assisted in the formation of the MTA's $10 billion Capital Program for Transit Improvements. He also coordinated an interagency effort to improve rail access to New York's Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. He is a former Peace Corps volunteer. He received a master's degree in regional planning from Cornell University.

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