August 2014

Prioritizing Safety

The indirect effects of safety grant modifications

While Congress wrestles with floating the insolvent Highway Trust Fund past this summer and crafting a new highway surface reauthorization measure, states are still dealing with new processes for obtaining safety grants established in MAP-21, two years after its enactment. When Congress made changes to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) federal safety grant program structure in 2012, they altered the way that state agencies apply for and receive highway safety grants, leaving many perplexed on how to approach the process and what input they can have.

Under the grant application process prior to MAP-21, states could apply directly to the DOT agency responsible for administering the highway funds. The provisions of MAP-21 and the subsequent regulations drastically change this protocol. The new structure offers fewer core programs and has the objective of giving states additional flexibility to deliver projects that meet national safety goals and cut back on jurisdictions sending in multiple grant applications for the same projects. However, this changed which grants state agencies such as motor vehicle and law enforcement agencies could apply for, what input they could have in grant applications and which programs they could use the grants on.

Changes to the Process

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s guidance document, “Partnering with State Highway Safety Offices: Tips and Tactics for Success,” the new process requires every state highway safety office (SHSO), led by a representative from the governor’s office, to submit two plans to the DOT for approval before grants can be allocated to the states: a performance plan and a highway safety plan.

The performance plan must set measurable highway safety goals for the state and use performance metrics to calculate outcome effectiveness. By incorporating performance-based metrics, states can prioritize project budgets, cost-effectiveness and efficacy. The SHSO must identify leading highway safety problems using current data such as population, crash statistics and traffic numbers.

NHTSA also encourages states to involve constituency groups in the planning process. Thus, states can open up many seats at the discussion table for state agencies or similar groups to work together—or shut them out completely. This leaves state agencies at the mercy of a more top-down approach than before for the attainment of grants.

In addition, every state must submit a highway safety plan (HSP) that describes its specific highway safety programs and what commitment area these programs attempt to satisfy. The HSP must include one year’s worth of Section 402-funded projects (State and Community Highway Safety Grants) and a list of projects by program area. It must also indicate where funding will be directed and the amount, ensure that at least 40 percent of the 402 funding goes to local governments and be approved by the governor’s representative. Financial plans must be submitted to show the division of federal highway safety funds among the different state program areas.

Grant Alterations

MAP-21 not only changed the federal highway safety grant structure, but it also changed the grants themselves. Under MAP-21, some incentive grants were eliminated or aggregated. The State Safety Belt Incentive Grant Program (formerly Section 406 under SAFETEA-LU) was eliminated. Most states had previously qualified for it, so no need existed to continue the program. Two other occupant protection grant programs—the former Occupant Protection Incentive Grants (formerly Section 405 under SAFETEA-LU) and Child Safety and Child Booster Seat Safety Incentive Program (formerly Section 406 under SAFETEA-LU)—were consolidated under Section 405 of MAP-21, now the National Priority Safety Program.

Additionally, incentive grants for impaired driving, traffic records, motorcyclist safety, distracted driving and graduated driver licensing were also lumped together under Section 405. The distracted driving and graduated driver licensing grant programs are new under MAP-21. The distracted driving program makes grants to states that implement a statute making distracted driving a primary offense. The graduated driver licensing program makes grants to states that implement graduated driver licensing laws that limit the use of cell phones, driving at night and carrying passengers of no familial relation to the driver.

Challenges Created

The changes to the grants themselves made it even tougher for states to navigate through the latest structure. With new incentive grants, consolidations and other modifications are new qualifications to meet, along with new determinations as to which programs align with the standards set forth. Coupled with the hierarchy of the top-down grant application process, the new hurdles set up by MAP-21 leave state agencies with little room to have a significant say in which grants will align with their safety needs and how to approach the application process.

Federal lawmakers should examine the issues that have arisen from the consolidation of federal highway safety grant programs and the new grant application process, especially as reauthorization measures to extend the programs in MAP-21 are debated this summer. MAP-21 sought to streamline and make the grant application process more efficient for states and grantees, but this left many of the state agencies at the forefront of highway safety without a secure voice in the process. This knowledge will allow lawmakers to attempt to remedy these problems in the new reauthorization measure.

A backwards step will be taken if these drawbacks are not addressed. Emerging safety issues also may be of concern, because consolidation makes it harder for them to be addressed individually. Not only will the state agencies at the front lines of implementing highway safety measures potentially be left out of the process, but national safety priorities also will suffer as a consequence, ultimately negating the overarching purpose of federal highway safety grants.