Cycle 6 of California’s Active Transportation Program (ATP), staff recommendations for which were announced on October 20, was an exceptional one. An infusion of funds from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), brought the baseline of funds from the $444 million per cycle that existed since the passage of SB 1 in 2017 to slightly over $650 million. Then, after the call for projects had already been issued, the unprecedented state budget surplus allowed for a one-time infusion of $1 billion in additional funds.
Due to the unprecedentedly large amount of funds in the Cycle 6 pot, there was widespread anticipation that the cut-off score would drop below the cutthroat level of Cycle 5 (in which the threshold for funding in the statewide component was 92 out of 100). Indeed, that did happen, but Cycle 6’s cut-off score of 89 is proof that the ATP remains so heavily oversubscribed that even a fund of more than $1.6 billion is not enough to support a huge portion of the best walking and biking projects in the state. California Transportation Commission (CTC) staff recommended a total of 93 projects (67 in the Statewide Component and 26 in the Small Urban/Rural), a sharp increase from Cycle 5, in which only 50 projects (41 in the Statewide, and 9 in the Small Urban/Rural) were recommended.
Without the augmentation, of course, ATP Cycle 6 would have been so competitive that it would have been functionally inaccessible for the vast majority of applicants in the state: the threshold score for funding in the Statewide competition would have been a 95, with funds to support only 23 projects, and the threshold score n the Small Urban/Rural would have been 92, only supporting 7 projects.
The increasing difficulty in getting funded through the ATP is not because of a sharp change in the quality or evaluation of applications, which was one of the factors that made Cycle 4 so much more competitive than Cycle 3. This year, however, average scores actually dipped a point to 74 from Cycle 5, and median scores remained constant at 79. Instead, as with Cycles 5 and to a lesser extent with Cycle 4 the extreme competitiveness is a matter of higher price tags for projects that are submitted to the ATP. This was manifested differently in Cycle 6 than in Cycle 5, however: whereas in the previous cycle, medium infrastructure projects consistently were $2-3 million more expensive than in prior years, gradually chipping away at the available funds, in Cycle 6, the largest projects starkly outperformed all other categories. For example, average scores for Large Infrastructure projects were considerably higher than the application pool at large, and Large Infrastructure projects had a much higher success rate than other categories.
Another way of seeing this trend is by looking at the total amount of funds requested vs. the amount of funds available. Removing the one-time state budget augmentation, but including the boost from the IIJA/BIL, which will continue in future cycles, that ratio actually improved slightly from Cycle 5, and the number of applications dropped by a statistically insignificant amount, but the cut-off score would still have risen dramatically, due to the dominance of the largest projects.
The prominence of the largest ticket projects was also much more keenly felt in the Small Urban/Rural component this cycle than it was in Cycle 5, with 3 projects in the Large Infrastructure category.
The data can’t tell us why the large applications are performing so much better, but it is plausible and maybe even likely that the potential for mode shift is inevitably much more obvious for projects that cover more ground and/or include more impactful (and more expensive) road treatments.
Combined Infrastructure/Non-Infrastructure Projects
Meanwhile, combined Infrastructure/Non-Infrastructure projects scored better than stand-alone infrastructure projects across all categories, as was the case in Cycle 4 and Cycle 5, and as is consistent with our recommendations for practitioners. Interestingly, however, adding a non- infrastructure component tended to give a much more drastic boost to Small Infrastructure projects than to large ones, raising the median score of Small Infrastructure projects from 68.5 to 86, while only increasing the median score of Large Infrastructure projects from 80.75 to 83.5. The reasons for this are hard to discern - it could be that large projects generally perform so strongly that there is less room for improvement from adding an non-infrastructure component. Or, it may be challenging for partner agencies to develop non-infrastructure programs commensurate with the scale of some of the larger projects that may cover the catchment areas for more than, say, ten schools. Perhaps larger projects already involve, as a rule, more robust public engagement than smaller projects, so the community participation that a non-infrastructure program entails makes more of a difference in the public participation section of the ATP application for smaller projects.
As with other ATP Cycles, Cycle 6 also saw some stark geographic disparities in the recommended projects. Applications from SCAG made up a third of the recommended projects, a similar dominance to the last few cycles, but an even greater share of the overall application pool, so that does not represent any particular edge in success rate. On the other hand, applications from AMBAG and SACOG had success rates better than the applicant pool at large. AMBAG in particular excelled, with almost three quarters of the applications from its constituent counties receiving funding through either the Statewide or Small Urban/Rural components. Among counties that are not in multi-county MPOs, those in the Far North and Sierra regions also had high success rates, as did the Central Coast.
As for what these results might point to for areas of advocacy in future cycles, we may push for a reserve for Plans applications, which performed poorly, as they did in Cycle 5 (they performed very well in Cycle 4). Having a plan is so critical for smaller communities to see success in subsequent cycles, especially as points are now being awarded to projects that are included in a plan. The other obvious area of advocacy would be some sort of cap on the funding request. In previous cycles, we have opposed such a measure, but with one-time augmentations less likely in the future and the ATP reverting in size to a $650 million program, that might be the least bad option available, unless a sustainable boost in funding comes through reallocation from other funding sources. Such a cap would have to be implemented in a way that did not disproportionately affect under-resourced communities and those outside the large MPOs which have fewer, if any, non-ATP funding sources to make up the difference in their project costs.
We’re curious to know what you think - what priorities does this exceptional ATP cycle point you and your agencies towards? How might we support you? Please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org