Onus for roadway safety set squarely on shoulders of states

On June 9, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) was signed into law. Its scope ranges from traditional roads and transit expenditures to bicycle trails and storm water treatment systems.

The $217.5 billion price tag over six years is approximately 40% more funding than under the previous bill, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA). Funding of core highway programs increase 43% to $172 billion. The average state receives 44% more highway funding than under ISTEA (see 'TEA-21' Transportation Bill Passes Congress, Awaits Clinton's Signature, June 1998, p 22).

Core Highway Program
Expenditures 1998-2003
Interstate Maintenance/National Highway System
Surface Transportation $58.8 billion
Program $37.9 billion
Bridge Program $21.9 billion
CMAQ Program $ 9.1 billion
Minimum Guarantee $16.5 billion

Unlike ISTEA, TEA-21 enhances the likelihood that a majority of the bill's programs will actually be funded. A new mechanism is created that walls off Highway Trust Fund moneys into a separate "transportation only" category. Approximately $200 billion in revenues is projected for the trust fund through 2003. This money must be spent for transportation, or not spent at all. It cannot be used to offset spending in any other part of the budget. The increase in authorized highway spending is substantial when compared to ISTEA:

Obligation Ceilings: TEA-21 vs. ISTEA

TEA-21
FY 1998 $21.50 billion
FY 1999 $25.51 billion
FY 2000 $26.24 billion
FY 2001 $26.76 billion
FY 2002 $27.35 billion
FY 2003 $27.81 billion

ISTEA
FY 1992 $16.80 billion
FY 1993 $18.30 billion
FY 1994 $18.36 billion
FY 1995 $18.33 billion
FY 1996 $18.36 billion
FY 1997 $18.34 billion

Roadway safety provisions

It is impossible to discuss the impact of TEA-21 on roadway safety and the roadway safety industry without first examining another key legislation theme: F-L-E-X-I-B-I-L-I-T-Y. TEA-21 increases state control in determining how federal moneys are spent. The changes weaken the oversight responsibilities of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

TEA-21:

  • Delegates to the states oversight for projects not on the interstate;
  • Eliminates all decision-making authority from the regional offices of the FHWA, returning that authority to the FHWA state offices;
  • Allows states to transfer up to 50% of their state allocations between highway program categories, although some core protections for certain programs are maintained;
  • Simplifies current planning processes to increase flexibility in selecting projects; and
  • Strictly prohibits NHTSA from using federal funds to urge a state or local legislator to favor or oppose the adoption of a specific legislative proposal pending before a state or local legislative body.

The most significant flexibility provision in TEA-21 allows states to utilize 50% of the funding within one program category to emphasize its priorities in another. For this reason, future efforts to improve the roadway safety architecture will depend on local transportation officials' willingness to place safety as a priority.

Given that most of the dedicated infrastructure safety monneys can be easily "flexed" into other categorical programs, roadway safety maintenance and hazard elimination projects may lose out in favor of capacity expansion projects.

Safety: Better or worse?

What is the impact of TEA-21's flexibility on roadway safety? Does a lack of federal guidelines necessarily translate into deterioration in roadway safety? The obvious answer is not necessarily.

Every single road construction and maintenance project that will be completed under TEA-21 is required to meet the minimum guidelines for safety found in the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). So each completed project will utilize the minimum best practices allowed by FHWA and in many cases will surpass FHWA standards. A bill that provides 43% more funding for these types of projects should ensure an even safer federal-aid highway system.

However, because two-thirds of all fatalities occur on two-lane roads, most of which are not federal-aid highways, a large influx of funding for the already much safer federal-aid highway system may not translate into a net benefit for roadway safety. States, already pressed to find the matching funds necessary to access federal-aid highway dollars, may find themselves transferring money from their traditional maintenance and safety improvement accounts to make up the difference. This could quickly lead to a deterioration of state maintained roads.

Railroad crossings and road hazards

The original House bill, H.R. 2400, included a program to aggressively promote the use of infrastructure safety improvements for the most dangerous two-lane roads. The High-Risk Roads Program would have targeted $1 billion dollars a year towards fixing these two-lane death traps. However, in the last-minute give-and-take to complete TEA-21, the High-Risk Roads Program was dropped from the final bill. In addition, one of the two remaining programs that deal with roadway safety hazards was weakened.

The Hazard Elimination and Rail/Highway Grade Crossing programs are a 10% spending target within the Surface Transportation Program (STP). Under these programs, 10% of the STP funds must be spent on roadway safety improvements. There are minimum levels of spending within each program; unfortunately, TEA-21 expands the scope of the Hazard Elimination Program to include the interstate system, bikeways, pedestrian pathways, traffic calming and public surface transportation facilities.

Expanding the scope of the program may seem logical except:

  • The interstate highway system is already the safest of all the systems;
  • Bikeway and pedestrian pathway safety enhancements seem to be a more logical fit for the Transportation Enhancement Act (TEA) program that builds them; and
  • Public surface transportation facilities is another name for mass transit.

So the one remaining program that TEA-21 could have funded to support the elimination of hazards on two-lane roads was weakened to include these rather dubious new safety categories. For all practical purposes, this eliminates the program's impact on safety and allows the states to spend, or not to spend, money to eliminate roadway hazards.

Growth, growth, growth

What does TEA-21 mean for the roadway infrastructure safety industry? A 43% increase in core highway programs and 1,800 congressional high-priority projects certainly bode well for any company that provides work-zone products and services.
In two to three years, it may seem as if half the nation's roads are under construction. Pavement markings, guardrails, signs, impact attenuators should all be part of the mix, and starting in the year 2000, NCHRP-350 standards will mandate a national safety face-lift just as a majority of these projects jump off the diagrams and onto the roadway.

With rapid industry growth will come additional challenges. Some of these new challenges include:

  • Hiring and retaining a well-trained work force as the competition for labor increases;
  • Ensuring that the current "road rage" phenomenon does not spill over to work zones;
  • Promoting good communication between industry and state DOT officials on industry issues;
  • Working towards greater enforcement of traffic laws designed to protect workers in the work zone;
  • Providing a positive public image that conveys industry safety concerns; and
  • Educating state legislators regarding the impact of their highway funding decisions on the safety of the motoring public.

As the roadway infrastructure safety industry heads into the 21st century, the coupling of TEA-21 and NCHRP-350 should make for a highly specialized and professional growth industry. TEA-21 places the roadway infrastructure safety burden squarely on the shoulders of the states, especially regarding the two-lane secondary roads.

Summary of safety changes

The following is a summary of TEA-21's roadway safety infrastructure related changes:

  • Hazard Elimination/Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Program
  • Earmarks 10% of Surface Transportation Program (STP) moneys for Hazard Elimination and Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Program. States are required to spend at their 1991 levels as a minimum. The remainder of "new" moneys can be flexed between the two programs or utilized as part of the overall 50% flex for STP.
  • Hazard Elimination Program's scope is expanded to allow interstate roads, bikeways, pedestrian pathways, traffic calming and facilities to be eligible for funding.

Work-zone safety

  • Amends section 403(a)2(A) to require NHTSA to conduct research on training in work-zone safety management.
  • Requires a study be conducted to determine the extent and effectiveness of utilizing uniformed police officers on federal-aid highway construction projects as a deterent to speeding motorists in work zones.
  • Requires FHWA to study the effectiveness of road barrier technologies in improving traffic capacity and safety in construction work zones.
  • Intelligent transportation systems funding includes moneys to deploy lifesaving technologies for traffic management on roadways.

Pedestrian/bicycle safety

  • FHWA is to provide $500,000 annually to a national not-for-profit organization to operate a national clearinghouse, develop information and educational programs and disseminate techniques and strategies for improving bicycle and pedestrian safety.
  • A National Bicycle Safety Education Curriculum is to be developed.

Additional industry studies and data collection

  • FHWA is to conduct a study to determine the criteria and maintenance practices of states regarding food service signs as described in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways.
  • Provides funding for states that create and implement a highway safety data strategic plan in accordance with FHWA requirements.

Series on federal transportation bill begins

This is the first in a six-part series on the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). Through December, ROADS & BRIDGES will examine the transportation bill's effects on varying segments of the highway industry.

In August, we'll look at how the Bridge Program faired in the bill and what it means for the bridge industry.

More information on TEA-21 can be obtained by accessing the Federal Highway Administration's Internet site: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/tea21/ index.htm.

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