Speaking the Jargon of Transportation and Funding

Here's a glossary of federal transportation and funding terminology, as adapted from the Federal Highway Administration and other sources, and the extensive resources of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, as described below. Our thanks to these entities for their input.

An administrative distribution of funds among the states, done for funds that do not have statutory distribution formulas.

A term that refers to a statutorily prescribed division or assignment of funds. An apportionment is based on prescribed formulas in the law and consists of dividing authorized obligation authority for a specific program among the states.

An appropriation is an act of Congress that enables federal agencies to spend money for specific purposes. It's an action of a legislative body that makes funds available for expenditure with specific limitations as to amount, purpose, and duration. For the highway program operating under contract authority, appropriations specify amounts of funds that Congress will make available to liquidate prior obligations.

Attainment Area
An area considered to have air quality that meets or exceeds the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) health standards used in the Clean Air Act. An area may be an attainment area for one pollutant and a non-attainment area for others.

An authorization is an act of Congress that establishes or continues a federal program or agency, and sets forth the guidelines to which it must adhere. Basic substantive legislation or that which empowers an agency to implement a particular program and also establishes an upper limit on the amount of funds that can be appropriated for that program.

Average Daily Traffic (ADT).
The average number of vehicles passing a fixed point in a 24-hour time frame. A convention for measuring traffic volume.

Balanced Budget.
A balanced budget occurs when total revenues equal total outlays for a fiscal year.

Budget Authority.
Budget authority is what the law authorizes, or allows, the federal government to spend for programs, projects, or activities. It's an empowerment by Congress that allows federal agencies to incur obligations to spend or lend money. This empowerment is generally in the form of appropriations, but for the major highway program categories, it is in the form of "contract authority". Budget authority permits agencies to obligate all or part of the funds that were previously "authorized". Without budget authority, federal agencies cannot commit the government to make expenditures or loans.

Budget Resolution.
The budget resolution is the annual framework within which Congress makes its decisions about spending and taxes. This framework includes targets for total spending, total revenues, and the deficit, as well as allocations, within the spending target, for discretionary and mandatory spending.

A "cap" is a legal limit on total annual discretionary spending.

Process to assess the compliance of any transportation plan, program, or project with air quality control plans. The conformity process is defined by the Clean Air Act.

Congestion Management and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ).
A categorical funding program created by ISTEA which directs funding to projects that are defined as meeting national air quality standards, such as transit. CMAQ funds generally may not be used for projects that result in the construction of new capacity available to SOVs (single-occupant vehicles).

Congestion Management System (CMS).
ISTEA requires that each Transportation Management Area (see definition of TMA) develop a CMS that provides for effective management of new and existing transportation facilities through the use of travel demand reduction and operational management strategies. Unless a part of a CMS, future highway projects that significantly increase capacity for single occupant vehicles (SOVs) may be ineligible for federal funding.

Contract Authority.
A form of budget authority that permits obligations to be made in advance of appropriations. The federal-aid highway program operates mostly under contract authority rules.

Debt Held by the Public.
The total of all federal deficits, minus surpluses, over the years. This is the cumulative amount of money the federal government has borrowed from the public, through the sale of notes and bonds of varying sizes and time periods.

Debt the Government Owes Itself.
The total of all trust fund surpluses over the years, like the Highway Trust Fund or Social Security surpluses, that the law says must be invested in federal securities.

Debt Subject to Legal Limit.
Roughly the same as gross federal debt, the maximum amount of federal securities that may be legally outstanding at any time. When the limit is reached, the president and Congress must enact a law to increase it.

The deficit is the difference produced when spending exceeds revenues in a fiscal year.

Discretionary Spending.
Discretionary spending is what the president and Congress must decide to spend for the next fiscal year through 13 annual appropriations bills. Examples include money for such activities as the FBI and the Coast Guard, housing and education, space exploration and highway construction, and defense and foreign aid.

Enhancement Activities.
Required by ISTEA, refers to activities related to a particular transportation project that "enhance" or contribute to the project. Examples of such activities include provision of facilities for pedestrians or cyclists, landscaping or other scenic beautification projects, historic preservation, control and removal of outdoor advertising, archeological planning and research, and mitigation of water pollution due to highway runoff.

An entitlement is a program that legally obligates the federal government to make payments to any person who meets the legal criteria for eligibility. Examples include Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
Report which details any adverse economic, social, and environmental effects of a proposed transportation project for which federal funding is being sought. Adverse effects could include air, water, or noise pollution; destruction or disruption of natural resources; adverse employment effects; injurious displacement of people or businesses; or disruption of desirable community or regional growth.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
EPA is the federal source agency of air quality control regulations affecting transportation.

Excise Taxes.
Excise taxes apply to various products, including the transportation excise taxes on gasoline, diesel fuel and tires, but also alcohol, tobacco and telephone service.

Expenditures (Outlays).
A term signifying disbursement of funds for repayment of obligations incurred. An electronic transfer of funds, or a check sent to a state highway or transportation agency for voucher payment, is an expenditure or outlay.

Federal Debt.
The gross federal debt is divided into two categories: debt held by the public, and debt the government owes itself. Another category is debt subject to legal limit (definitions above).

Fiscal Year.
The fiscal year is the government's accounting period. It begins Oct. 1 and ends on Sept. 30. For example, fiscal 1998 ends Sept. 30, 1998.

An alternative motor fuel that is a blend of 90 percent ordinary gasoline and 10 percent ethanol fermented from biomass (e.g., corn). It can be used interchangeably with gasoline in conventional cars. In an effort to encourage its use, under federal law gasohol is taxed at a lower rate than straight gasoline.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
GDP is the standard measurement of the size of the economy. It is the total production of goods and services within the United States.

High Occupancy Vehicles (HOVs).
Generally applied to vehicles carrying three or more people. Freeways, expressways and other large volume roads may have lanes designated for HOV use. HOV lanes may be designated for use by carpoolers, vanpools, and buses. The term HOV is also sometimes used to refer to high occupancy vehicle lanes themselves.

Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS).
Use of computer and communications technology to facilitate the flow of information between travelers and system operators. Includes concepts such as "freeway management systems," "automated fare collection," and "transit information kiosks." IVHS technologies are a subset of ITS technologies.

Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA).
Legislative initiative by the U.S. Congress that restructured funding for transportation programs. ISTEA authorized increased levels of highway and transportation funding and an enlarged role for regional planning commissions/MPOs in funding decisions. The act also requires comprehensive regional long-range transportation plans extending to the year 2015 and places an increased emphasis on public participation and transportation alternatives.

Interstate System.
The system of highways that connects the principal metropolitan areas, cities, and industrial centers of the U.S. The routes of the Interstate System are selected jointly by the state department of transportation for each state and the adjoining states, subject to the approval of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

Limitation on Obligations.
Any action or inaction by an officer or employee of the United States that limits the amount of federal assistance that may be obligated during a specified time period. A limitation on obligations does not affect the scheduled apportionment or allocation of funds, it just controls the rate at that these funds may be used.

Management Systems.
Six systems required under ISTEA to improve identification of problems and opportunities throughout the entire surface transportation network, and to evaluate and rank strategies, actions and solutions. The six management systems are: Pavement Management System (PMS), Bridge Management System (BMS), Highway Safety Management System (HSMS), Congestion Management System (CMS), Public Transit Facilities and Equipment Management System (PTMS) and Intermodal Management System (IMS).

Mandatory Spending.
Mandatory spending is authorized by permanent law. An example is Social Security. The president and Congress can change the law to change the level of spending on mandatory programs, but they don't have to.

Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).
The organizational entity designated by law with lead responsibility for developing transportation plans and programs for urbanized areas of 50,000 or more in population. MPOs are established by agreement of the governor and units of local government, which together represents 75 percent of the affected population or an urbanized area.

Mode, Intermodal, Multimodal.
Form of transportation, such as automobile, transit, bicycle and walking. Intermodal refers to the connections between modes and multimodal refers to the availability of transportation options within a system or corridor.

National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).
Federal standards that set allowable concentrations and exposure limits for various pollutants.

National Highway System (NHS).
A federal transportation program authorized by ISTEA that designates nationally significant interstate highways and roads for interstate travel, national defense, intermodal connections, and international commerce. Other eligible activities include bikeways and park-and-ride lots. The NHS is currently being developed as the first component of a larger, intermodal National Transportation System.

National Transportation System (NTS).
ISTEA called for the development of an NTS and work on identifying this system was launched by former Transportation Secretary Pena. The intent is to bring about an intermodal transportation system that will move people and goods more effectively and efficiently, and thereby advance economic, environmental and social goals.

Obligation Authority.
See "Limitation on Obligations."

Obligation Ceiling.
The maximum amount allowed by law to be obligated for current and future commitments in a given fiscal year.

Commitments made by federal agencies to pay out money as distinct from the actual payments, which are "outlays." Generally, obligations are incurred after the enactment of budget authority. However, since budget authority in many highway programs is in the form of contract authority, obligations in these cases are permitted to be incurred immediately after apportionment or allocation. The obligations are for the federal share of the estimated full cost of each project at the time it is approved regardless of when the actual payments are made or the expected time of project completion.

By law, the government must distinguish "off-budget" programs separate from the budget totals. Social Security and the Postal Service are "off-budget". There is a strong effort to take the Highway Trust Fund "off-budget" as well.

Outlays are the amount of money the government actually spends in a given fiscal year.

Particulate Matter (PM, PM-10).
Any material that exists as solid or liquid in the atmosphere. Particulate matter may be in the form of fly ash, soot, dust, fog, fumes, etc. Small particulate matter, or PM-10, is less than 10 microns in size and is too small to be filtered by the nose and lungs.

An action that does not allow a state to use the full amount of its apportioned funds. The action may be a withholding of project approvals or withholding of a percentage of the state's apportionment. The action ("sanction") may be taken when the state does not comply with a required provision of law.

The supplying traditionally government-supplied goods and services through for-profit business entities to enhance public cost efficiency and leverage limited public funds.

A legislative action to cancel the obligation of unused budget authority previously provided by Congress before the time when the authority would have otherwise lapsed. Rescission may be proposed by the Executive Branch but requires legislative action to become effective.

Money collected by the government.

See "Penalty".

Social Equity, Justice.
The provision of affordable, efficient and accessible transportation services to all people regardless of race, ethnicity, income, gender or disability. A socially equitable transportation system provides all people with convenient access to meaningful jobs, services and recreational opportunities.

State Implementation Plan (SIP).
Required documents prepared by states and submitted to EPA for approval. SIPs identify state actions and programs to implement designated responsibilities under the Clean Air Act.

Surface Transportation Program (STP).
A new categorical funding program created by ISTEA. Funds may be used for a wide variety of purposes, including: roadway construction, reconstruction, resurfacing, restoration and rehabilitation; roadway operational improvements; capital costs for transit projects; highway and transit safety improvements; bicycle and pedestrian facilities; scenic and historical transportation facilities; and, preservation of abandoned transportation corridors.

A surplus is the amount by which revenues exceed outlays.

Transportation Control Measures (TCMs).
Local actions to adjust traffic patterns or reduce vehicle use to lower air pollutant emissions. These may include HOV lanes, provision of bicycle facilities, ridesharing, telecommuting, etc.

Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).
Under ISTEA, a document prepared by states and planning commissions citing projects to be funded under federal transportation programs for a full-year period. Without TIP inclusion, a project is ineligible for federal funding.

Transportation Management Area (TMA).
Defined by ISTEA as all urbanized areas over 200,000 in population. Within a TMA, all transportation plans and programs must be based on a continuing and comprehensive planning process carried out by the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) in cooperation with states and transit operators. The TMA boundary affects the responsibility for the selection of transportation projects that receive federal funds.

Trust Funds.
Accounts established by law to hold receipts that are collected by the federal government and earmarked for specific purposes and programs. These receipts are not available for the general purposes of the federal government. The Highway Trust Fund is composed of receipts from certain highway user taxes (e.g., excise taxes on motor fuel, rubber, and heavy vehicles) and reserved for use for highway construction, mass transportation, and related purposes.

Unified Federal Budget.
The unified budget, the most useful display of the government's finances, is the presentation of the federal budget in which revenues from all sources and outlays to all activities are consolidated.

Vehicle Miles of Travel (VMT).
A standard areawide measure of travel activity. Most conventional VMT calculation is to multiply average length of trip by the total number of trips.


"A Citizen's Guide to the Federal Budget", U.S. Department of Commerce.
LINK: http://www.doc.gov/

Federal Register, "Statewide and Metropolitan Planning Regulations", Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration, U.S. DOT.

"Financing Federal-Aid Highways", Federal Highway Administration.
LINK: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/

"ISTEA Planner's Workbook", Surface Transportation Policy Project, 1100 17th St., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20036, voice (202) 446-2636, fax (202) 446-2247.
LINK: http://www.transact.org/home.html

Mobility Partners Term Collection; Christopher J. Bender, Manager.

"A Summary of Transportation Programs and Provisions of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990," Federal Highway Administration.

"Talking the Talk," East-West Gateway Coordinating Council, St. Louis.