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Harrisburg, PA region “guinea pig” for CMAQ-funded bikeshare program

There's really isn’t any Federal Highway [Administration] guidance on how bikeshare can be funded through CMAQ. We just said “hey, this an eligible expense, so here’s how we’re going to do this" -- Steve Deck, Executive Director, TCRPC


Steve Deck is what you might call a “get ‘er done” kind of guy. As Executive Director of the Harrisburg, PA metropolitan planning organization, TCRPC (Tri-County Regional Planning Commission), Steve is perfectly positioned to pair community transportation goals with planning and programming opportunities. It makes perfect sense, then, that Steve wasted no time when in 2021 the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) added shared micromobility to the list of projects eligible for CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality) funding.


While CMAQ grants have long been used to support capital equipment purchases related to shared mobility, this new legislation elevates bikeshare specifically as a meaningful transportation solution, deserving of public transportation funding. However, despite the excitement around this new language there hasn’t been much guidance being passed down to state and local governments pertaining to actual eligible expenses. So communities like Harrisburg were still left wondering if anything had really changed. There was only one way to find out.


Steve presented a fresh perspective to the FHWA when applying CMAQ funds for Susquecycle, the Harrisburg, PA regional bikeshare program. Rather than pitch an “ownership” model, wherein a local entity would purchase bikes and stations with CMAQ funds and source an operations-only service provider, Steve made the case for using CMAQ funds to support turnkey bikeshare in a “leasing” model.


Because getting to this point isn’t a simple or single-handed effort, it makes sense to shed some light on the people and processes leading up to the re-launch of Susquecycle, the Harrisburg, PA bikeshare program operated by Tandem Mobility, which is 80% funded by a federal CMAQ grant.

Steve and I chatted about his experience in securing CMAQ funding for the Susquecycle. Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited slightly for clarity.


 

Stacy Sebeczek: How did TCRPC end up in the position of championing the bikeshare program and ultimately pursuing the federal funding?


Steve Deck: It was actually through conversations with a lot of other local entities: Parks and rec groups, bicycle groups, and the like, and none of them had the staffing or the experience to do it. We were comfortable taking the lead as the MPO (metropolitan planning organization) since we have direct access to those federal funding dollars. So we decided to act as that mechanism to bring back bikeshare.


Stacy Sebeczek: Did taking on the lead role for this CMAQ funding project have an impact on other programs and projects you were already managing, in terms of your staff and resources?


Steve Deck: At the time I didn't actually know anything about bikeshare. So I didn't know what was involved. But in reaching out to Lancaster and Hershey who had already gone through launching a bikeshare program with Tandem Mobility, I learned that the turnkey kind of approach wouldn't burden our staff since you guys really do all the work. So we took on the RFQ [request for qualifications] and the funding conversations went really smoothly.


Stacy Sebeczek: Taking this new approach to funding bikeshare you were basically saying “Hey FHWA, I think CMAQ funding is a good fit for our bikeshare project”. Yet with the new legislation there were still so many unknowns, and it’s not super black and white the way it’s written in terms of exactly how to best leverage the CMAQ dollars.


Steve Deck: Right.


Stacy Sebeczek: Precedent hadn’t been set, and you didn’t really have any other communities to learn from at this stage in the game.


Steve Deck: I know.… at the time I was not aware of anybody else having done this. We just like being the guinea pig. In fact, to this day, as far as I know, there's still no federal highway guidance on how bikeshare can be funded through CMAQ. We just worked with PennDOT and kind of told them how we saw this could come together, and it worked out.


Stacy Sebeczek: What is PennDOT’s role?


Steve Deck: This was new for PennDOT as well. But the way the process works is that the federal money actually goes through PennDOT and is released to us. So we simply put it on our TIP (Transportation Improvement Program) how much CMAQ funding we wanted to use. We had an idea of the size of the system we wanted. And just basically told PennDOT “this is what we're going to do”. And started working with them on making it happen.


Stacy Sebeczek: Do you feel like you're getting support or guidance along the way from PennDOT, FHWA, or others?


Steve Deck: I think it's mostly us just figuring it out. For example, with CMAQ funds we were aware that there's always issues of operational versus capital cost. And they really like to see as much of the CMAQ funding going to capital costs with very little of it to operating costs. So that's when we worked with Tandem to break down the lease cost allocation.


Stacy Sebeczek: What is the funding breakdown for the entire Susquecycle program?


Steve Deck: Basically at this point we have it so that the capital costs come out to about 80%, which is the maximum allowable federal share. Our local health care provider UPMC was anxious to support a program like this so they right away volunteered to pay for another 15%. So there we were 95% of our costs covered in a very short time period. All we had to do was basically cover that last 5% of operating costs, which happens through our revenue share from rentals.


Stacy Sebeczek: How are you making the case for ongoing CMAQ funding?


Steve Deck: We actually had an opportunity to make some points to the Federal Highway Administration on how we thought this should be handled because there's still no guidance. One of the things we said at the time is that they're calling out shared micro mobility like Bikeshare as CMAQ-eligible, and by the nature of the beast bikeshare has a lot of operational costs. You can't say on one hand that bikeshare is covered under CMAQ but then say operational costs are ineligible.


Stacy Sebeczek: Is that an active conversation you're in now, pushing the FHWA to clarify eligible expenses?


Steve Deck: We revisit this every once in a while. Something will come up at one of our MPO meetings or something and all of a sudden somebody asks me a couple of questions about it. As far as I'm concerned, once they provide guidance that shows this arrangement is problematic, then we'll have that argument at that time.


Steve Deck: But it's only logical to me that bikeshare can directly improve air quality and replace SOV trips, and it’s recently been called out for CMAQ funding support, so let’s make this happen.


Stacy Sebeczek: 100%. What is PennDOT’s position here?


Steve Deck: I think PennDOT’s perspective is basically as long as Federal Highway is letting you do this, we're okay with being kind of the intermediary processor. I think everyone is on board with this set up, and we’re having good conversations.


Stacy Sebeczek: Tell me again about your funding process leading up to securing the CMAQ funds.


Steve Deck: We were going through our normal TIP development process or transportation improvement, programming process where we allocate funds to different projects. And when we did that we simply carved out this money and said, “we're going to take this amount of CMAQ funding and make it our bikeshare program”. Nobody truly questioned that. We didn't have to ask for the ability to do that. We just kind of said, “hey it's an eligible expense. This is what we're going to do”. There were some questions from Federal Highway at the time, but when we explained things, like, recurring capital costs and lease as opposed to purchase and those kinds of things, everybody seemed to be okay with it, in the absence of true guidance.


Stacy Sebeczek: I appreciate that you’re pushing the conversation, paving the way for other communities to secure CMAQ funding for their programs.


Steve Deck: It only makes sense, I mean CMAQ money is supposed to remove cars from the road, improve air quality. We have other similar types of programs vanpooling to do those things. Why shouldn't bikes be part of that?


Stacy Sebeczek: What kind of reporting requirements are attached to these funds?


Steve Deck: We are constantly analyzing data and building the narrative around our program ridership and impact. We've made that part of our MPO meeting. PennDOT and Federal Highway are on the MPO board, so they get to hear that the system is being used and it's growing. We’ll see what kind of reporting requirements come through after the first year in operations.


Stacy Sebeczek: Interesting. Do you expect that a big part of the conversation will be about vehicle trips offset?


Steve Deck: It very well could be at some point. One thing that I like doing is looking in the system and seeing how many people started at this station and ended up at a very different station because that's a true transportation need. You might take a recreational trip for exercise and travel around and come back to where you started. But I think what we wanted to see was that the bike ride was taking the place of a legitimate car trip. So we’re looking to see if someone parks on City Island, grabs a bike and rides to the train station. That's a legitimate trip. So we include that kind of information to show that it really is taking cars off the road at that point.


Stacy Sebeczek: Yep, and I think that's really interesting too, because it's not uncommon early in a bikeshare program that rentals are mostly recreational because it's this proof of concept. People haven't shifted, culturally or in their own lifestyles to think of grabbing a bikeshare bike rather than their car keys to make a trip. Seeing this kind of transportation activity already in this past year is a testament to the impact Susquecycle really could have on changing behavior and ultimately improving air quality.


Steve Deck: I agree, and I actually get enjoyment out of looking at those statistics every once in a while. I'll look at it and I'll go okay, they went downtown to the Square or they started downtown and they went to the Broad Street Market for lunch. Those are pretty great trends, but it does take a lot of education and outreach. And that's what we're trying to focus on now.


Stacy Sebeczek: In terms of your system set up, was there a lot of input there for how the system footprint was designed? And if there are changes to be made, how are those decisions made?


Steve Deck: We have a bikeshare steering committee which includes the city planner from Harrisburg, and there's different bike advocates, and others that have helped us historically on bike- ped or non-motorized projects. At the end of this year I'm sure we'll pull that group together, look at the data, talk about station utilization and any strategic changes to be made.

Stacy Sebeczek: Are there any other regional players who are involved in the larger bikeshare conversation?


Steve Deck: We have this steering committee but we do a lot of interaction as a planning commission, with all the municipalities in our region. And we have regular conversations with them when we're talking about other things about interest level and bikeshare. So many of the ideas that we throw to our steering committee actually come from Q&A with the municipal officials across the region. That's how we ended up with the station in Hummelstown. They're like, “hey, how do we get a bike share rack?” And it’s especially great because their station now joins Susquecycle to the Hershey system, that's just incredible. So that worked out quite well. So it's municipal coordination and this steering committee.


Stacy Sebeczek: Love it. In your experience, what has been awesome about using CMAQ grant funding and what's not so awesome about it?


Steve Deck: Well what's awesome about CMAQ funding is it greatly reduces your staff's time needing to chase down and maintain sponsorships in order to adequately fund a Bikeshare program that’s reasonably sized. There is a learning curve involved, as to what's the optimal number of stations and their spacing, and that kind of thing. We're still learning a lot about that. But if we had to do that and continually be chasing down sponsors, I'm not sure that we would have gotten this far. So being able to do 80% federal funding has made our program possible in a relatively short amount of time.


What’s complicated about it is, because it's Federal money, it has to go through an environmental clearance process. Even to place a portable bike station somewhere. And that can take months. So you have to be conscious of what that takes and proactive in identifying these potential stations as early on as you can - just making sure you're getting that environmental process worked out because it can take months to secure the actual funds to pay for the system.


Stacy Sebeczek: Let’s talk about the entire process from system design to funding to launch.

Steve Deck: The steering committee helps us determine where stations should be. Then we go to PennDOT with those locations and ask for their help, working us through the environmental process. We also have a consultant helping us here. That environmental process I’m learning can take two or three months, even if you're only adding one station.


Stacy Sebeczek: Yikes.


Steve Deck: What we learned through that process is where not to put the stations to expedite that process. So, for instance, putting them inside a park. Parks can complicate the NEPA process, although it makes perfect sense to have a bikeshare in these locations it makes the NEPA process more difficult. So, we put our bike stations along the outside edge of the parks. So we’ve learned how to simplify the environmental [clearance process], but it's always a challenge.


Stacy Sebeczek: What happens after clearance?


Steve Deck: So the immediate step after clearance is that we can formally request the release of funds from PennDOT. So that’s when I submit a letter along with your invoice formally requesting these funds, showing how I'm doing it 80/20. With this letter they then start working on the release of funds, which as we've come to learn takes about four to six weeks. During that time we're simply working with you on launch deliverables, branding, what goes on the bikes and the signs, things like that.


Steve Deck: So, there's some magic there in the timing of picking locations, getting through environmental clearance, working with you on the program customizations, getting that invoice paid and trying to make that all come together at the same time. That's what we're still struggling to do.


Stacy Sebeczek: Yeah, I'd say that, from our end too, that is the biggest gap in the process, just not having that direct connection to the funding conversation.


Steve Deck: Right.


Stacy Sebeczek: So understanding what the process and timelines are on, say, the PennDOT side of things, and then also on the Federal Highway side of things, that helps us manage expectations with our accounting and installation and operations teams in terms of launch timeline and how we can hit that target launch date.


Steve Deck: And that's a problem these days because it is new, and you get people in that system somewhere that are basically saying “you're doing what?!”.


Stacy Sebeczek: That's right.


Steve Deck: “Wait, what, are you buying bikes or are you building something?” PennDOT is not used to paying for things like bikeshare programs. So, I think everybody has a learning curve.


Stacy Sebeczek: Yeah, and it's interesting too because from an operator side and having worked so closely with you, we understand that you’re good for the payment, but we just don’t know when it’s coming. But at the same time we want to stay on track and get those bikes launched. So we get into a little bit of that gray area of bending our rules a bit on setting launch timelines without a clear payment date. It’s been a learning process for us as well, and now that we have been through this with you we’ll be able to better set expectations for timelines in the future to make sure all those pieces line up just right before the launch.


Steve Deck: Yeah. And it's probably different with every state DOT that you would work with. Those processes might be different.


Stacy Sebeczek: Indeed.


Steve Deck: And I think it is a benefit that we're doing this in Pennsylvania for other MPOs that want to do the same thing. I think at least we're greasing in the skids.


Stacy Sebeczek: Has anyone reached out to you to ask how you’ve done this?


Steve Deck: I mean, locally here, it's Lancaster. They've had the bikeshare system but they've never used CMAQ. So I've had many conversations with Karl about how to do this. And I've had other MPO people from Lancaster, York, Lebanon. There's eight counties in our PennDOT district that are saying “okay, explain to me, what are you doing?” And every year there are meetings of all the Mpos with all of the PennDOT districts in October where everybody gets together and talks about various subjects. Those are opportunities where we would look to get a session on how to do bikeshare with CMAQ money. There’s 23 MPOs in Pennsylvania. So that's our chance to kind of have that conversation with everybody in all the PennDOT districts.


Stacy Sebeczek: Yeah, that would be a really powerful force to be reckoned with, if this coalition can come with some advice on the CMAQ guidance and bring that to Federal Highway. That could be really impactful, nationally.


Steve Deck: These sessions are called Planning Partners Meetings. I would love to have a session where it's us (TCRPC), the PennDOT project manager for bikeshare, and somebody from Federal Highway, to talk through how we're using federal CMAQ funds through PennDOT to do bikeshare programs. This whole process needs clarity so it’s easier for the next community who wants to do this. I think that would be a cool session.


Stacy Sebeczek: That would be cool. What advice would you give for other communities who are considering using CMAQ for bikeshare?


Steve Deck: I think starting off, find a turnkey solution because you're never going to run a program like this by yourself. It’s just too difficult. Then being able to work with somebody like yourself…who has been great in terms of helping us through that CMAQ cost breakdown when we applied for funds. You made it easy to just present that information to PennDOT and Federal Highway and show why this was a legitimate thing, and here’s how it can be funded.


Stacy Sebeczek: It’s been a great experience for us as well. We really enjoy working with your team to figure this out along the way.

Steve Deck: The other kind of guidance I would give is, we are learning a lot about the NEPA process as it relates to bikeshare, and we're thinking about doing things like pre-approving areas as opposed to seeking clearance for a specific bikeshare station location. So, if we knew right now that next year in 2024 we might seek to put a bike station in a general zone, we could start that NEPA process in advance. Now the only downside to that is that part of those clearances are for threatened and endangered species and only have a life expectancy of two years. So, you can get something approved, but you want to make sure you're doing something in the near future. Otherwise the Pre-approval expires and didn't do you any good. So those are the kinds of things we shared when we sat down with PennDOT and went, “hey this NEPA process is painful, and here are some ideas that people came up with to make it easier”. I mean, I actually think there are certain types of projects that PennDOT or MPOs can do which are not exempt from NEPA requirements but they're considered cleared just by the nature of what the project is. So ideally long-term I'd love to have bike share stations cleared through NEPA, simply by the fact that it's a bikeshare station and, maybe there's a couple of criteria like as long as it's not in a wetland for example. With environmental impact, bikeshare is a positive thing just by itself. So, we shouldn't have to go through the process that we do. So maybe someday part of this guidance will be “as long as you meet these handful of criteria you’re good”. That'd be a wonderful world.


Stacy Sebeczek: Yes! There’s a lot going on here. So with Susquecycle, what was the timeline from pursuing CMAQ funding to launching your program?


Steve Deck: It took us about a year, or pretty close. Once we made the decision that we were going to be the lead entity, it just happened to be at about the time that shared micromobility, was added as an acceptable cost and we're like “let's take that route”. And then UPMC found out about it and stepped up and committed significant funding towards it. That was a month later. And then by that time we kind of figured out where we wanted the stations and sent out the RFQ and selected Tandem as our vendor. And then we were able to work out the environmental clearances, so all in all that was about a year.


Stacy Sebeczek: And you've since expanded the program, adding more stations to your original program. Did that process require many of the same steps, and what was that implementation timeline like?


Steve Deck: Yes. So, the bikes from that first year were hibernated right at Thanksgiving. It was probably December that we met with our group and said, “okay, where are our new stations gonna be? We have the ability, we have additional funding, where should we put them?” So that started in December. And we had those new stations with you at the beginning of June. So six months, so we cut the process in half.


Stacy Sebeczek: You said in December, you started conversations with a group about placement because you had funds. Does that mean that when you initially approached CMAQ for funding, you actually had the bigger vision already then, and had built your program request around the larger system size?


Steve Deck: We already had the bigger amount of funding set aside, and then we were like, okay, we have capacity to basically double the size of the system, which is what we did. So that's what we aimed at is finding another half dozen locations that made the most sense to us.


Stacy Sebeczek: Yep makes sense. And so you had inputs from bikeshare vendors potentially, and your team about what is the ideal system size, and you say “hey, Federal Highway, this is a reasonable system size we're going after with CMAQ”, and then in terms of implementation, it was rolled out in two phases?


Steve Deck: Yeah and then where we go from here I think is going to be based on the data from that first year and into the second year. What is the demand? I mean we do get calls every once in a while from places going “ hey, can we get a bikeshare station?” It's where we kind of end up with a waiting list.


Stacy Sebeczek: Do you think the conversation becomes “sure, you can have a station for X dollars?” Or is it “we'll put you in the queue for our next CMAQ request”?


Steve Deck: So far, it's been “we can't do it for you this year. But here at the end of summer/fall, we'll be really evaluating the data”. And the first opportunity could be, let's say we have a station that's just not getting good usage. We’ll see if there are any of these places on a waiting list that are, relatively speaking, nearby. So initially maybe we make adjustments to the placement of the current stations rather than increasing the number of stations. But the data might show us that we need more stations.


Stacy Sebeczek: I think that's a really smart way to approach it because it's a data-driven expansion potentially or a re-configuration of an existing system. You're being very proactive and making sure the system is meeting the goals and serving the community the way that's expected.


Steve Deck: Yeah and we are in our TIP or Transportation Improvement Program update process this year. So this fall, we will also be looking at the use of the system and figure out what we want to do for the future because we plan four years in advance. We have to think, in any of those years, do we want to change that level of funding available for the bikeshare program? Today, I don't know…but that's part of the process.


Stacy Sebeczek: Is that daunting to think about re-approaching Federal Highway with a new or potentially expanded request for CMAQ bikeshare funds?


Steve Deck: It's easy because like I said, we don't truly ask permission to use it. We end up with dollars out of the CMAQ which is allocated to us on a formula based on a number of different factors. And the one beauty about using it is that, for traditional transportation projects like road resurfacing and bridges, you can't use CMAQ funding. So, it's a less competitive funding pool for us. So we usually end up with these dollars available to us by formula. That we have to decide how to spend it.


Stacy Sebeczek: How have you used CMAQ for other projects?


Steve Deck: Sure, we actually give about half of it to our local transit provider to support buses. We also work with other MPOs in our district to jointly fund what's called the Susquehanna Regional Transportation Partnership (SRTP), which is a group that does carpooling/ride sharing. They do a lot of outreach to employers, mainly to help them get employees to their sites more without having to drive alone. So we fund that whole program as well. So the three primary uses of CMAQ would be SRTP, our transit authority, and bikeshare at this point. Other than that, we have a miscellaneous category. We're allowed to just kind of say, “hey, as we do congestion planning, we'll use the CMAQ funds to do those projects, but we don't know what they are yet”.


Stacy Sebeczek: Fantastic. Do you guys have a bike friendly business or community status?


Steve Deck: We do not have the status, but I will tell you that some of our bikeshare bike advocates that we work with will mention that to me on a regular basis, saying we should do this.


Stacy Sebeczek: You should do this actually.


Steve Deck: And it's on the list, Stacy. So I don't disagree at all.


Stacy Sebeczek: Haha nice! Gotta love the list.


Steve Deck: And the people that we pay to do the bikeshare, to do the carpooling, Laura Heilman - she works for them and is out talking carpooling and vanpooling. She's also talking bikeshare. And only the other entity that we're starting to work with that I think is going to be a big help is our regional tourism bureau.


Stacy Sebeczek: Yes. Yes.


Steve Deck: In large part because of how we now have a system that completely envelops Hershey, from all different sides, they're interested in helping us get the word out to tourists. So we signed up to be a partner of the Tourism bureau. Cost me a hundred and fifty bucks. And then they will help us with marketing they feel would be most successful, whether it's brochures in hotels, outreach to the bed and breakfasts. I think that’ll be interesting as to how that works from the tourism front.


Stacy Sebeczek: Absolutely.


Steve Deck: And we're talking about maybe adding stations near for instance, the hotels in downtown and then putting a station at the entrance to Hershey Park. Ride your bike to Hershey and back kind of thing, which is cool.


Stacy Sebeczek: It also could open up other potential funding sources, right? So as a tourist amenity there’s even more opportunity to build in long-term financial sustainability if you need to expand beyond CMAQ funding.


Steve Deck: Yeah, whether it's Hershey or, the beautiful attraction to the city of Harrisburg which is the Susquehanna River. It’s this mile wide river here on the east shore here next to my office. That's a beautiful ride.


Stacy Sebeczek: Yeah, I think there's a lot of potential here. It's so neat to see where you've come in such a short time with this program and bringing CMAQ behind it, and not just being content with that but continually having those conversations around system impact. It’s great that you’re kind of pushing the envelope here on how it's funded and where it can go, and I really appreciate that.


Steve Deck: Two years ago, I knew nothing about Bikeshare.


Stacy Sebeczek: Right!


Steve Deck: So it's been a fascinating process. Now people come to me and go, “can you tell us about this”? I think that's funny because all I ever knew about bikeshare I learned basically in the past year. And when you get people like the woman that we are talking about earlier, who thanks you for doing this. You don't get thanked very often in anybody's career. So for somebody to say, “hey, this has really helped me get back and forth to work”. It’s the best.


Stacy Sebeczek: I love it. This has been great. Thank you for sharing all of this. I feel like I’ve known so many bits and pieces of this story through our relationship. And it's neat to have this all come together in one conversation.


Steve Deck: Yeah. And Stacy I need to thank you because if we had to have a much bigger labor role in this, it wouldn't happen. Working with you guys has been great.


Stacy Sebeczek: Thank you. And thanks for making it fun and easy for us - we like working with you.




I don't know who needs to see this, but Steve is ON THE INTERNET.




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