Looking to decipher wonky and mysterious transportation terminology? Bookmark this page if you run into a term or phrase you’re not familiar with. We’ll try to keep it updated and comprehensive, but as you probably know, there’s a near endless supply of complicated transportation terms, and not all terms are easy to explain in a sentence.
Glossary of Transportation Policy, Planning and Budgetary Terms
Accessibility — The ability to reach a variety of destinations. By focusing on access to services, goods and contacts, accessibility emphasizes projects that make reaching everyday destinations easier and more efficient. Accessibility considers both speed and distance of travel.
Allocation — A distribution of funds for programs that do not have statutory distribution formulas.
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) — The economic stimulus package enacted in February 2009 by the 111th Congress. The stimulus was intended to create jobs and promote investment and consumer spending during the recession. ARRA provided considerable funds for surface transportation including $27.5 billion through the existing federal-aid highway program and $8.4 billion for transit. High Speed Passenger Rail, previously a relatively small federal program, received $8 billion. An additional $1.5 billion was made available by a new competitive, discretionary grant program known as TIGER to be used for any eligible surface transportation purpose.
Apportionment — The distribution of funds as prescribed by a statutory formula. The amount of funds distributed is set in law.
Appropriated Budget Authority — a form of Budget Authority that requires both an authorization act and then an appropriations act before any funds can be obligated. The surface transportation authorization is an example.
Appropriations Act — Legislation that makes funds available with specific limitations as to amount, purpose and duration. Generally, it permits money previously authorized to be obligated and payments to be made, but for the highway program operating under contract authority, the appropriations act specifies the amount of funds that Congress will make available for the fiscal year to pay out obligations.
Area Sources – Small stationary and non-transportation pollution sources that are too small and/or numerous to be included as point sources but may collectively contribute significantly to air pollution.
Arterial Street – A class of street serving major traffic movements (high-speed, high volume) for travel between major points.
Attainment Area – An area considered to have air quality that meets or exceeds U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health standards used in the Clean Air Act.
Authorization Act — Substantive legislation that establishes or continues Federal programs or agencies, determines all policies and establishes an upper limit on the amount of funds for the programs. The current authorization act for surface transportation programs is the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). Transportation authorizations are usually written to cover 5 or 6 years.
Authorization Extensions — these temporary measures essentially extend the policies and spending levels of the old transportation law, pushing the debate about changing policies or funding amounts to a later date. These ensure that the activities and revenue sources that support the federal transportation program can continue. The authority of the extensions allows states to continue to sign contracts with obligation authority, manage planning and construction and be assured of reimbursement for expenses.
Budget Authority — Empowerment by Congress that allows Federal agencies to incur obligations (debts, payments, etc.) that will be paid later by appropriated federal dollars. For most of the highway programs, they operate under contract authority.
Budget Resolution — A concurrent resolution passed by Congress presenting the Congressional Budget for each of the succeeding 5 years. A concurrent resolution does not require the signature of the President.
Capital Program Funds — Financial assistance from the major transit capital programs of the transit title of the U.S. Code (49 U.S.C. Section 5309.) This program enables the Secretary of Transportation to make discretionary capital grants and loans to finance public transportation projects divided among fixed guideway (rail) modernization; construction of new fixed guideway systems and extensions to fixed guideway systems; and replacement, rehabilitation, and purchase of buses and rented equipment, and construction of bus-related facilities.
Complete Streets — Streets that provide for safe, convenient, efficient, and accessible use by all users — motor vehicles, pedestrians of all ages and abilities, people with a disability, bicyclists and transit vehicles. Communities with complete streets policies ensure that new and reconstructed streets take the needs of all users into account and ensures that they are accommodated.
Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ) — A federal-aid funding program created under ISTEA (1991 authorization). CMAQ directs funding to projects that contribute to meeting national air quality standards. CMAQ funds generally may not be used for projects that result in the construction of new road capacity available to single-occupancy vehicles.
Congestion Management System – Systematic process for managing congestion. Provides information on transportation system performance and finds alternative ways to alleviate congestion, enhance the mobility of people and goods, to levels that meet state and local needs. This is requited in larger metropolitan areas with populations of 200,000 or more.
Conformity — A Clean Air Act requirement that ensures that federal funding and approval are given to transportation plans, programs and projects that help meet the air quality goals established by a State Implementation Plan (SIP). Conformity requires transportation activities will not cause new air quality violations, worsen existing violations or delay timely attainment of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).
Context Sensitive Solutions – Collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to project development and design that underscores the importance of community and environmental values that transportation projects can reinforce.
Contract Authority — A form of Budget Authority that permits obligations to be made (sometimes over several years) before dollars have been appropriated by Congress. Most of the programs under the Federal-Aid Highway Program operate under Contract Authority
Dedicated sales taxes — sales taxes collected and used for a specific purpose. Sales taxes are often dedicated to fund transit and are a major source of transit funding for state and local governments
Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) — The United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) is a cabinet-level department of the United States government responsible for transportation infrastructure, which institutes and coordinates the federal transportation programs. Each state has their own State Department of Transportation (DOT) that regulates the use of funding distributed to states from the federal transportation program and constructs and maintains the state’s transportation infrastructure.
Discretionary funding — Discretionary funding is money that states or MPOs can receive outside of statutory or formula funding programs. Often, these funds are awarded at the discretion of the Secretary of Transportation or U.S DOT programs, sometimes by a merit-based or competitive process. This would be in contrast to formula funding, which is determined by law or based on specific, measurable numbers like population, vehicle miles traveled, gas tax receipts, etc.
Donor / Donee — This refers to whether or not a state gets back more or less from the federal government than they pay in gas taxes each year. The disparity comes from the formulas that dictate the funding levels to states compared with how much gas tax they generate each year. It has been a recurring point of contention for the last several transportation authorizations. In 1982, Congress voted to give all states a “minimum allocation” of 85 percent of a state’s share of estimated tax payments, which was gradually increased to 90.5 and later 92 percent. (See Equity Bonus)
Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways — Commonly called the Interstate Highway System (or simply, the Interstate System), this is a network of limited-access highways (also called freeways or expressways) connecting states and metropolitan areas that was created in 1956 by Congress. The system includes a total length of 46,876 miles of roadway.
Environmental Justice – Identifying and addressing disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of transportation programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.
Equity Bonus Program — This program was created to ensure that every State is guaranteed at least a minimum amount of that State’s share of contributions to the highway portion of the Highway Trust Fund. The specified percentage, referred to as a relative rate of return, is 90.5 percent for 2005 and 2006, 91.5 percent for 2007, and 92 percent for 2008 and 2009. This program was created in part to address the donor/donee issue. It’s not a program in the same sense as others; all the money from this program is distributed to the other core highway programs.
Federal-Aid Highway Program — Generally refers to most of the Federal programs providing highway funds to States. In a budgetary sense, this specifically refers to highway programs financed by contract authority out of the Highway Account of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), plus any HTF supplemental appropriations for the Emergency Relief Program. The authorizations for this program are contained in titles I and V of SAFETEA-LU and in 23 U.S.C. 125.
Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) — The agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation that administers the Federal-Aid Highway Program, principally providing financial assistance and technical and programmatic support to states to construct and improve highways, urban and rural roads and bridges.
Federal Transit Administration (FTA) — The agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation that provides financial and other resources to transit agencies in developing and improving public transportation equipment, facilities, services, techniques, and methods
Firewall — A budgetary device separating (and protecting) certain discretionary Federal spending from other spending in the discretionary category. The spending for programs with firewalls may not be reduced in order to increase spending for other discretionary programs. SAFETEA-LU establishes, for fiscal years 2005-2009, a firewall to protect highway and highway safety spending and a firewall to protect transit spending.
Fiscal Year — The accounting period for the budget. The Federal fiscal year is from October 1 until September 30. The fiscal year is designated by the calendar year in which it ends. For example, FY 2011 runs from October 1, 2010 until September 30, 2011.
Federal Match Requirement — Many projects in the various states and communities are partially funded with federal grants with a requirement for matching funds generated from state, local, or private funding. For example, the Interstate Highway System was primarily built with 90 percent funds from the Highway Trust Fund and 10% matching state DOT funds.
Funding Flexibility — is often used to describe the ability to invest available dollars in other transportation options —transit, walking, bicycling, car and vanpooling, etc.— as part of the program’s eligibility, but it also can mean the ability to shift or transfer funds from one program to another. The Surface Transportation Program (STP) is an example of a flexible program.
Highway Bridge Program — Formerly known as the Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program (HBRRP), this program funds the replacement of structurally deficient or functionally obsolete highway bridges or the rehabilitation necessary to correct major safety (functional) defects. Deficient highway bridges eligible for replacement or rehabilitation must be over waterways, other topographical barriers, other highways, or railroads. The condition of bridges may also be improved through systematic preventive maintenance.
Highway Trust Fund (HTF) — A fund credited with receipts that are held in trust by the government and allocated by law for use in funding the federal transportation program. Founded by the 1956 Highway Revenue Act, most taxes and fees related to the nation’s transportation system have been deposited into this dedicated transportation funding account. The Highway Revenue Act of 1982 mandated a separate account to support public transportation.
High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) – Vehicles carrying two or more people. The number that constitutes an HOV for the purposes of HOV highway lanes vary by facility.
Indian Reservation Roads Program (IRR) — The Indian Reservation Roads Program addresses transportation needs of tribes by providing funds for planning, designing, construction, and maintenance activities. The Federal Highway Administration’s Federals Lands Highway Office and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) jointly administer the program. Indian Reservation Roads are public roads, which provide access to and within Indian reservations, Indian trust land, restricted Indian land, and Alaska native villages. Approximately 25,000 miles are under the jurisdiction of BIA and tribes and another 24,000 are under State and local ownership.
Innovative financing — This refers to a range of non-traditional financing mechanisms to supplement—not replace—traditional highway financing methods. The primary objectives of innovative finance are to maximize the ability of states and other project sponsors to leverage Federal capital for needed investment in the nation’s transportation system; more effectively use existing funds; move projects into construction more quickly than under traditional financing mechanisms; and make possible major transportation investments that might not otherwise receive financing.
Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) — Any number of advanced technologies that can improve the efficiency and safety of roads and transit services. This includes but is not limited to things like trip-planning services, congestion pricing, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, tolling, and demand management.
Intermodal — The ability to connect and make the connections between different modes of transportation, such as walking, biking, and transit. Also used to refer to an intermodal hub or system, one that uses multiple modes or connects them.
Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) — The 1991 Federal authorization that restructured funding for transportation programs; authorized an increased role for regional planning agencies/MPOs in funding decisions; required comprehensive regional and statewide long-term transportation plans; and provided for a uniform federal match for highway and transit projects. This authorization was also notable for declaring the Interstate System mostly complete and making multimodal spending a focus of federal legislation.
Interstate Maintenance Program (IM) — The Interstate Maintenance Program was established by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 to fund resurfacing, restoration, rehabilitation, and reconstruction projects (The 4 R’s).
Long-Range Transportation Plan — A multi-year transportation plan developed by state DOTs and MPOs in collaboration with a range of stakeholders that defines a vision for the region’s or state’s transportation systems and services. For metropolitan areas, it includes all transportation improvements proposed for funding over the next 20 years.
Mass Transit Account — An account within the Highway Trust Fund created in 1982 to pay for public transportation projects. A portion of the Federal motor fuel taxes are dedicated to the Mass Transit Account, totaling 2.86 cents per gallon.
Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) — A regional policy agency serving urbanized areas with populations over 50,000 established by the state. MPOs are responsible for carrying out the metropolitan transportation planning requirements of federal highway and transit legislation, in cooperation with the state and other transportation providers
Mobility — Refers to the movement of people and goods, or the speed of travel. Traditionally, mobility has been synonymous with ‘traffic’, and measured through one-dimensional level-of-service ratings that focus on vehicle movements, throughput and speed, failing to accurately measure congestion or the true difficulty of a commute.
Mode — A specific form of transportation such as automobile, subway, bus, bicycle or train
National Highway System (NHS) — A federal transportation program to create an interconnected system of principal arterial routes to serve major population centers, international border crossings, ports, airports, public transportation facilities, other intermodal transportation facilities, and other major travel destinations; meet national defense requirements; and serve interstate and interregional travel. The National Highway System today is approximately 160,000 miles of roadway important to the nation’s economy, defense, and mobility. The National Highway System includes the 46,000+ miles of the Interstate Highway System, other Principal Arterials, Strategic Highway Network, Major Strategic Highway Network Connectors, and Intermodal Connectors.
National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) — Federal standards that set allowable concentrations and exposure limits for various pollutants as required under the Clean Air Act. Air quality standards have been established for the following six criteria pollutants: ozone, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, nitrogen, dioxide, lead and sulfur dioxide.
National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) — This law established a national environmental policy requiring that any project using federal funding or requiring federal approval, including transportation projects, examine the effects of proposed and alternative choices on the environment.
National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission — One of two national commissions created by SAFETEA-LU and charged with assessing the existing transportation program. The Commission findings were intended to provide insights and recommendations to be included in the current transportation reauthorization. The Final report Paying Our Way: A New Framework for Transportation Finance offers specific recommendations for addressing the significant and widening gap between federal investment and the nation’s transportation infrastructure needs, while at the same time moving the federal government away from reliance on motor fuel taxes toward more direct fees charged to transportation infrastructure users.
National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission — One of two national commissions created by SAFETEA-LU and charged with assessing the existing transportation program. The Commission findings were intended to provide insights and recommendations to be included in the current transportation reauthorization. In the final report Transportation for Tomorrow, the commission reviews the condition and future needs of the surface transportation system, recommends future roles and programs, and identifies finance mechanisms for the surface transportation system in the immediate, short and long terms.
New Starts/Small Starts — This program is the largest, discretionary source of funding for building new systems and the expansion of public transportation systems. Projects to expand or construct new fixed guideway transit service funds are distributed through a competitive process.
Nonattainment Areas — Areas considered not to have met Clean Air Act standards for designated pollutants. An area may be in attainment for one pollutant and in nonattainment for another. In the transportation debate, nonattainment usually refers to areas that do not comply with applicable federal air quality standards for ozone, carbon monoxide and particulate matter. Being in nonattainment can threaten a portion of federal funds for a state or metro area.
Obligation Limitation — Also called the “ceiling,” a restriction of maximum amount of Federal assistance that may be promised (obligated) during a specified time period. This is a statutory budgetary control that does not affect the apportionment or allocation of funds. Rather, it controls the rate at which these funds may be used. The transportation authorization sets the obligation limitation for the life of the bill.
Obligation Authority — The Federal government’s legal commitment to pay or reimburse the States or other entities for the Federal share of a project’s eligible costs.
Outlays — Actual cash payments made to the States or other entities as reimbursement for the Federal share of a project’s eligible costs.
Penalty — Action taken by Federal agencies when the grant recipient does not comply with provisions of the law. For the highway program the imposition of penalties, which are defined in law, may prevent a State from using or receiving its full apportionment or may force a transfer from one program to another.
Performance Measures — Indicators of how well the transportation system is performing with regard to such things as asset management, on- time performance, system access/availability, and accident rates. Used as feedback in the decision- making process for transportation spending.
President’s Budget — A document submitted annually (due by the first Monday in February) by the President to Congress. It sets forth the Administration’s recommendations to Congress for the Federal budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The power to make and pass a budget still lies with Congress.
Public Private Partnerships — Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are contractual agreements formed between a public agency and a private sector entity that allow for greater private sector participation in the delivery and financing of transportation projects. Considered a type of innovative financing.
Regional Councils of Government/ Planning Organizations — Multipurpose, multi-jurisdictional public organizations, created by local governments to respond to federal and state programs, regional councils bring together participants at multiple levels of government to foster regional cooperation, planning and service delivery. They have a variety of names, ranging from councils of government to planning commissions to development districts.
Rescission — A rescission is essentially the cancellation of some amount of a state’s transportation funds that have not been obligated to a contract or to a project. Otherwise known as contract authority, states are given a certain amount of money each year to enter into contracts with builders to construct transportation projects of all kinds. This rescission takes away a portion of those funds that states would otherwise spend on projects to build highways, repair roads and bridges, build bike lanes, and plan transit systems.
Revenue Aligned Budget Authority (RABA) — A provision of TEA-21 (1998 authorization) still in effect that ensures that transportation funding follows actual revenue from gas taxes and vehicle taxes.
Rural Planning Organization (RPO) — These serve as the forum for local engagement in rural transportation issues. They are mainly comprised of local elected officials and serve as the link between state DOTs and citizens. States are not required to have RPOs in place, though some states have created these government entities for planning and project selection purposes outside metropolitan planning areas.
Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient, Transportation Equity Act – a Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) — The current Federal surface transportation law enacted in August 2005 that continues most ISTEA reforms but placed added emphasis on safety, security and freight issues. SAFETEA-LU authorized $286.5 billion in spending over six years for transportation.
Section 4 (f) – Reference to a section of the 1966 USDOT Act providing protection for parks, recreation areas and wildlife or waterfowl refuges as well as historic and cultural resources
Set-aside — A requirement that a certain percentage of a program’s funds are reserved for a specific purpose.
State Implementation Plan (SIP) — A plan mandated by the Clean Air Act and produced by the state environmental agency, it contains procedures to monitor, control, maintain and enforce compliance with the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Must be taken into account in the transportation planning process.
State Infrastructure Bank — A revolving fund mechanism for financing a wide variety of highway and transit projects through loans and credit enhancement. State Infrastructure Banks are designed to complement traditional federal- aid highway and transit grants by providing states increased flexibility for financing infrastructure investments
State Strategic Highway Safety Plan — A new requirement under SAFETEA-LU requiring state DOTs to prepare a highway safety plan focused on strategies to reduce fatalities and injuries, including how Highway Safety Improvement (HSIP) funds are to be expended.
State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP) — The STIP is the state’s comprehensive 4-year plan for spending both federal and state transportation funds for selected projects and programs. The Metropolitan Planning Organizations in a state assemble what’s known as a Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) which is compiled and added to the State’s plan (STIP.) Projects have to be on the TIP or STIP to be eligible for federal funding.
Strategic Planning — Is a planning approach that helps communities eliminate bureaucratic waste and prioritize more strategic investments to get the “best bang for the buck.” By taking a page from the private sector’s playbook and implementing a strategic plan, our communities can have less traffic, less taxes, and less wasteful misuse of critical infrastructure funding.
Surface Transportation Program (STP) — Federal-aid highway funding program that supports a broad range of surface transportation capital needs, including many roads, transit, sea and airport access, vanpool, bike and pedestrian facilities. This is the largest program dollars-wise in the federal transportation program, and these funds are flexible, i.e., can be used on multiple different projects and modes.
System-generated revenues — Monies generated by those using the system and collected. These revenues are composed principally of passenger fares, augmented by revenue from advertising and concessions, park-and-ride lots, investment income, and rental of excess property and equipment.
Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) — A competitive grant program funded through the economic recovery package (ARRA) which awarded a total of $2.1 billion to innovative transportation projects that address economic, environmental and travel issues. The 125 projects that were awarded money are typified by projects that have a hard time getting federal funding under the current program, and included bridge replacements, addressing freight bottlenecks, the creation of alternative transportation options, and multimodal hubs and networks, to name a few.
Transit Agencies (Regional and Local) — Regional and Local transit agencies plan and operate public transportation services, usually separate from the state DOT, though they do coordinate with MPOs in developing regional plans and projects. Larger transit systems receive federal funding directly; small systems and on-demand paratransit providers receive funds through state DOTs and MPOs.
Title 23 of the United States Code “The Highway Title” — includes laws governing the Federal-Aid Highway Program. It includes six chapters — Federal-Aid Highways, Other Highways, General Provisions, Highway Safety, Research, Technology and Education and Infrastructure Finance.
Title 49 of the United States Code “the Transportation Title” — This includes laws related to governance and oversight, transit, motor vehicle regulation and rail programs. There are 10 subtitles — Department of Transportation; Other Government Agencies; General and Intermodal Programs; Interstate Transportation; Rail Programs; Motor Vehicle and Driver Programs; Aviation Programs; Pipelines; Commercial Space Transportation; and Miscellaneous.
Transportation Control Measures (TCM) – Transportation strategies that affect traffic patterns or reduce vehicle use to lower air pollutant emissions. These may include HOV lanes, provision of bicycle facilities, ridesharing, telecommuting, etc. Such actions may be included in a SIP if needed to demonstrate attainment of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards
Transportation Enhancements Program (TE) — The federal Transportation Enhancement (TE) is a 10 percent set-aside within the Surface Transportation Program and ensures funding to expand transportation choices and enhance the transportation experience through 12 eligible types of activities. The TE program is about 1.5 percent of overall federal transportation funding. Eligible enhancements include pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and safety programs, scenic and historic highway programs, landscaping and scenic beautification, historic preservation, and environmental mitigation.
Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) — Enacted in 1998, TEA- 21 renewed the 1991 ISTEA law and authorized a significant increase in federal funding commitments for fiscal years 1998-2003.
Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) — A prioritized listing/program of transportation projects covering a period of four years that is developed by an MPO as part of the metropolitan transportation planning process, required for projects to be eligible for funding. The TIP is assembled into the STIP. See State Transportation Improvement Plan.
Transportation Management Area (TMA) — An urbanized area with a population of 200,000 or more as defined by the U.S. Bureau of the Census and designated by the Secretary of Transportation, or any additional area where TMA designation is requested by the Governor and the MPO and designated by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation.
Transit Operating Assistance — The ability to use federal transit funding for operating expenses (The recurring costs of providing public transportation service.) They include: employees’ wages and salaries; fringe benefits; operating supplies such as fuel, and oil; contractors’ charges for services; taxes; repair and maintenance services, parts, and supplies; equipment leases and rentals; marketing; lease or rental costs; insurance; and administrative expenses.
Urbanized Area — Area that contains a city of 50,000 or more population plus incorporated surrounding areas meeting size or density criteria as defined by the U.S. Census. Urbanized areas are used for allocating transit funding from the Federal Transit Administration.
Urbanized Area Formula program — Formula funding program to fund planning, design and construction of bus and rail transit systems and related facilities for urbanized areas.