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Public Art and Transportation Enhancements: Congressional Action Update (from Arts Watch)

Liesel Fenner

As Americans are well aware, Congress is going through some significant policy discussions regarding the proper role of government and federal funding. One particular program that funds numerous arts projects nationwide is the Transportation Enhancements program (TE), funded through the U.S. Department of Transportation and administered by state transportation agencies, often in partnership with local arts agencies.

The TE program is important to the arts sector because of the federal funds made available locally for public art and design, museums, and historic preservation projects. This blog post seeks to translate proposed Congressional legalese and the actions you can take to help retain this vital program.

On November 9, 2011, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee led a markup of a two-year surface transportation bill named “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century” or MAP-21. The committee approved the bill unanimously.

The $83.8 billion measure (S.1813) would retain the Transportation Enhancement program that has become a target for budget cutting. However, a proposed overhaul of the program would expand the types of projects that could be funded — in some cases including construction of new roads.

States would be permitted to spend enhancement money — currently set aside for projects such as bicycle and pedestrian paths and historic preservation — on other road projects. The bill would greatly narrow the eligibility for supporting transportation museums and landscaping or scenic beautification projects that often include public art.

What exactly is a transportation enhancement that incorporates public art?

In Edmonds, WA, the economic development department is working with cultural services to improve business growth through visual identity enhancements and improved pedestrian access along Highway 99 – the city’s designated “International District.” A Transportation Enhancements grant of $316,000 is supporting Seattle artist Pam Bayette to create a gateway element, street lighting as well as a solar-lit sculptural project, with complementary street signage designed by Forma. The full project is slated to go to bid in winter 2012, and be completed by summer.

Since 1992, the Transportation Enhancements program has provided $12 billion to states (about $550 million annually) and more than $148 million to support 296 projects for transportation-related museums, which has allowed states and communities to restore historic structures and revitalize local historic districts. Landscaping and scenic beautification, which again, includes public art, is receiving 19 percent of total TE funding, according to the National Transportation Enhancement Clearinghouse.

The current legislation expires in March 2012 but these policy negotiations are happening now. All states have benefited from Transportation Enhancements funding.

Americans for the Arts has set up an E-Alert for advocates directly with their members of Congress. The alert, which only takes two minutes to complete, can be customized to include specific Transportation Enhancement examples from your state and community. State-specific TE projects can be identified through the National Transportation Enhancement Clearinghouse website.

Be sure to check out Americans for the Arts Federal Resource Guide for more information on arts and the TE program, as well as a memo by Senior Director of Federal Affairs Narric Rome explaining the current situation in more detail here.

Feel free to contact me (or Narric) if you have any questions about any of this information.

*Arts Watch is the bi-weekly cultural policy publication of Americans for the Arts, covering news in a variety of categories. Subscribe to Arts Watch or follow @artswatch on Twitter to receive up-to-the-minute news.

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