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Some in Congress are asking why states are redirecting the federal money at a time when crashes and highway deaths are on the rise.
With traffic deaths soaring over the last two years, some federal officials are questioning why nearly half of state transportation departments have diverted money from Washington specifically designated to making highways safer.
U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the House committee on transportation and infrastructure, expressed his frustration over the common practice at a recent hearing. DeFazio said it was “very disturbing” that, in the five years leading up to September 2021, 23 states transferred money out of the federal Highway Safety Improvement Program for other uses.
States have the authority to use up to half the money they receive through the program for other transportation uses. Nine states transferred money into the program, instead.
“While the obligation rates of HSIP funding are not a perfect metric for a state’s commitment to safety, keeping funding in that program is a key way to ensure that funding Congress authorized for safety is used for safety improvements,” said Peter True, a spokesperson for the Democrats on the committee, in an email message.
“At a time when traffic fatalities remain at unacceptable levels and have increased substantially in every state over the last two years, we believe that the authorized amounts for HSIP should be the absolute minimum dedicated to safety improvements and transfers out should not be acceptable,” he added. True said states can use much bigger federal grant programs to fill unmet needs, rather than take from the safety funding.
The criticism comes as the safety program is growing, because of the recently approved federal infrastructure law. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Biden signed last year will increase funding for the safety program to $15.6 billion over a five-year period, compared to $11.5 billion under the last major transportation funding law.
The Biden administration has also criticized states for not using their full allotment of the money for safety purposes. The Federal Highway Administration said in a February memo that it “strongly encourages states to use most, if not all, of their HSIP funding for eligible safety purposes.”
With the new infrastructure money coming from Washington, states should consider ending those transfers out of the safety program or even using some of their new federal money to add to their safety spending, the agency said.
In the memo, the FHWA added that it “acknowledges that HSIP funding obligation rates are not necessarily a reflection of a state’s commitment to safety” but asked state officials to consider the safety benefits of using the money for its intended purpose.
The FHWA must approve state transfers of money from the safety program.
The Biggest Transfers
Wisconsin transferred the greatest share of its safety money—nearly 48%—for other purposes of any state, according to federal data. New Jersey was not far behind, reallocating 44% of its funds. Maryland and Indiana both moved more than 40% of their highway safety money to other uses.
Joe Nestler, the administrator of the division of transportation investment management at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said one of the reasons the state had such a high transfer rate was because it used other sources of funds to pay for the safety components of bigger project.
So if 10% of a project’s cost was for safety improvements, the Wisconsin agency would typically roll that cost into the expenses covered by other federal programs rather than break out the safety costs. The approach made it simpler to administer those projects, Nestler explained in an interview.
“We were less concerned about getting credit than we were just making sure that we were getting the safety projects constructed,” he said.
Nestler said the Wisconsin transportation department funded all of the requests for projects it received for HSIP grants, whether they came from the regional offices of the state agency or from local governments.
Going forward, though, Nestler said Wisconsin will better delineate the safety projects it is funding through federal funds. “It’s easier to report on and to explain,” he said.
Shanteé Felix, a spokesperson for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said Maryland used the money it diverted for “critical statewide federal highway safety-compliant projects.”
She said that, until recently, federal law prevented Maryland and other states from paying for certain kinds of safety treatments, such as sidewalk construction, at the local level, but other federal highway programs were more flexible.
Other sources of federal highway money “have allowed more flexibility in funding for safety improvements and can be programmed to a project for swifter and more nimble response to a safety concern. For this reason, we have worked with our federal partners to move HSIP funds to these other safety related funding programs when necessary,” Felix wrote in an email to Route Fifty.
“We’re glad that Congressman DeFazio is so focused on safety, and we appreciate his frustration with the steep increase in fatalities in his home state,” Felix wrote. “However, we believe it would be incorrect to paint a broad brush, for example, in states like Maryland which is one of five states that had a decrease in fatalities this year.”
(Maine, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Wyoming were the other states that saw decreases.)
Felix also said that, while Maryland had received $200 million in HSIP funding during the five years in question, it spent $1 billion on road safety projects overall.
Scott Manning, the deputy chief of staff for the Indiana Department of Transportation, said his agency “includes safety components in every road and bridge project we fund, however, not all of those safety components fall in the HSIP criteria.”
“As an agency,” he wrote in an email message, “we are certainly aware of the rise in serious injury and fatal crashes in recent years and are reviewing our project selection and scoping approaches to ensure we’re maximizing funding available for safety improvements.”
The agency’s traffic safety division is looking for ways to bring its state highway safety plan “in closer alignment with HSIP criteria to reduce the amount of federal funding subject to transfer,” Manning added.
The transportation department in New Jersey did not respond to requests for comment.
AASHTO President: State Agencies Need Flexibility
DeFazio’s original comment was directed to Shawn Wilson, Louisiana’s secretary of transportation and president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. During the negotiations over the infrastructure bill last year, DeFazio had pushed to limit state transfers of safety money for states that failed to make progress in safety, but that provision was not included in the final law.
“You testified that state DOTs are ‘all in’ on safety for all users. Unfortunately, AASHTO also resists any attempts at … dedicating directly money and impinging on their flexibility,” DeFazio told Wilson.
“Can you tell me what the senior leaders and others at AASHTO are doing to perhaps put a little pressure on these states to stop transferring money out of the safety program, which could save lives?” DeFazio asked.
Wilson said state agencies needed flexibility to address unique conditions that each faces. “I would call your attention to the mandates and directives and legislative authorities that states have to work with, in terms of satisfying their governors, their legislatures, and their publics in those various processes,” he told DeFazio.
“I will be the first to tell you, not every state is going to do it equally,” Wilson said. “AASHTO does not have the authority to direct every state [in how to spend its money].”
Wilson said that money the states move out of HSIP could still serve a safety purpose. Louisiana did not transfer money from its safety allocations.
The states that transferred money out of the Highway Safety Improvement Program, according to the FHWA, were:
2. New Jersey—44.4%
6. New York—27.6%
9. Rhode Island—19.0%
11. New Mexico—13.7%
16. New Hampshire—8.6%
18. West Virginia—8.4%
Several states added money to their program instead. In fact, both South Dakota and California more than doubled their allocation. Other states that diverted more money to the program were North Dakota, Georgia, Arkansas, Alaska, Montana, Washington and Virginia.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.