Bike Program Managers: We Don’t Just Need Grants, We Need Staff

Editor’s note: Matthew Ridgway is a principal at Fehr and Peers, a transportation design and engineering firm that routinely consults on bicycle and pedestrian projects throughout the Bay Area.

Within the world of bicycle and pedestrian planning, there are some cities that have been successful in securing significant resources for pedestrian and bicycle-related projects. These funds come from a variety of sources and the organizations that are the most successful understand the funding cycles and ways to package projects so that they will be win local, state, federal and private grants.

More importantly, programs that are sustained over time (the only way to affect change) are not entirely reliant on grant funding – they have more reliable funding streams, often general fund, that allow the programs to sustain themselves regardless of the ever-changing funding conditions. In talking with these agencies, a common theme emerged about the real constraint to implementing more bicycle and pedestrian projects.  It is not just funding – it is staffing.

Jason Patton, PhD, is the Bicycle and Pedestrian Program Manager for the City of Oakland. He was the first to say something to the effect of ‘I don’t need more funding, I need more staff.’ But then I heard it from Chadrick Smalley, Richmond Community Redevelopment Agency; Eric Anderson, City of Berkeley; and Aleida Chavez, City of Albany.  So I decided to dig a little deeper into the specifics. On Oakland’s situation, Jason writes:

We estimate that it takes 0.25 full-time-equivalent staff (FTE) of work by staff in the Bicycle & Pedestrian Facilities Program to deliver a bicycle project with $100,000 of construction costs. This staff time includes planning, feasibility, funding, outreach, approvals, design, project management, and construction management.

Bicycle projects take a lot of staff time to develop and deliver. For bike racks, each location is investigated in the field to ensure that the location has suitable clearances. We then notify the adjoining tenant and the property owner of the proposed installation. We then resolve issues on a case-by-case basis. Following installation by City crews, we verify that the work was completed as designed. For bikeways, we have a technical process that addresses planning, feasibility, and design. We then mail all addresses within one block of the project area and then address the comments received. Projects that remove travel lanes or on-street parking require approval by City Council. Each project must also be cleared under the California Environmental Quality Act.

We have 2.0 FTEs in the Oakland Program, of which about 1.3 FTE is available to deliver bicycle and pedestrian projects (it requires 0.7 FTEs to respond to public requests, provide technical assistance to other City projects and programs, and perform other miscellaneous administration), which means we have a capital project capacity of $520,000.

On the funding side, we receive $350,000 per year from Measure B (Alameda County’s transportation sales tax) and $150,000 per year of Transportation Development Act Article 3 (a statewide sales tax) funds for bicycle projects. These two sources amount to $500,000 per year, roughly equivalent to Oakland’s capacity of $520,000 per year. In very general terms, we can deliver about 10 miles of bikeways and 100 bike racks per year with this funding level.

We apply for grants, but typically for projects with larger scopes of work and thus higher capital costs. We are not aggressive in pursuing grants, because we do not necessarily have the staff capacity to deliver grant-funded projects in a timely manner. With more staff, we could easily win more grants and build more facilities.

In sum, bicycle facilities are inexpensive to construct because the main building blocks are low cost: roadway stripes, signs, and bike racks. However, it is very time consuming to develop a technically sound project that meets the diverse needs of the public. For road diet projects in particular, the costs associated with feasibility, outreach, and design are more than the cost to actually construct the facility.

Eric Anderson, Berkeley’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator concurs, adding more local details and noting that the variability in grant funding availability is a barrier to increasing bicycle and pedestrian program staff:

We’re in roughly the same situation as Oakland.  We have 1.0 FTE dedicated to bike/pedestrian projects but in reality we have a lot of different staff working on these types of things. This situation works well when we’re in “business as usual” mode where we have the occasional capital grant for projects around $1M or less and our Engineering Division is able to handle this grant-billable work with their regular staffing levels. To take advantage of capital funding and make more progress on implementing our bike and pedestrian plans requires more staff, yet we can’t justify the staff without consistent funding to keep them billable. The funding streams for bike and pedestrian capital projects are (even now, even here in the Bay Area) too scarce and variable.

Chadrick Smalley of the Richmond Community Redevelopment Agency adds:

The question, when looking at each individual opportunity, is whether the grant application, and then administration, whatever the effort needed, is worth the time.  I’m to the point now where I realize I cannot take on any more – I’m way over capacity – and it’s unfortunate because I feel like we leave money on the table.

Iris Starr, Division Manager of Infrastructure Plans and Programming at City of Oakland Public Works Agency sums it up well.

Despite what seems to be a considerable amount of money available for design and construction (of bicycle and pedestrian projects), it cannot be spent as fast as would be possible – primarily because staffing levels are so low.  And, why are staffing levels low? Generally, it is because the funding streams for bicycle programs are insufficient to support ongoing work- rather, facilities must be developed on a grant by grant basis, which is (ironically) not sustainable. In the cities that are dedicated to the rapid realization of bicycle and pedestrian facilities, the staff is supported by additional funds (other than grants and formula monies). This approach allows staff to more quickly extend the network by going after and using all grant funds that can be captured. With dedicated staff, cities can ensure bicycle facility continuity, attend to real-time operations and maintenance issues, and respond to new opportunities as they arise.