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"As we move forward with the uncertainty of what a new transportation bill will look like, it’s important that you continue to work with your local planners and state DOTs to make sure that they understand the importance of trail projects."

x Presented at the 20th American Trails National Symposium

x Read more about current issues with funding for trails and greenways

 

The future of trails in federal transportation funding

By Eric B. Beightel, U. S. Department of Transportation Office of Transportation Policy

 

Before we look into the crystal ball and discuss what the Department is currently doing, what to expect with this new Congress and what a new transportation authorization bill might look like, I want to briefly look back at the success of DOT’s trail funding.

First, pedestrian and bicycle projects are now eligible under every major Federal-aid funding category.

Also, under the Surface Transportation Program, we’ve averaged between $400 million and $600 million per year provided to states for pedestrian and bicycle related facilities and programs. The Recovery Act pushed that to more than one billion dollars in 2009 and 2010.

photo of people on trail

the Monon Trail in Indianapolis

 

The Transportation Enhancements and Rec Trails programs have provided almost 10 billion dollars to states since 1992 for more than 28 thousand projects. Through the life of the Congestion Management and Air Quality Improvement program almost half a billion dollars have been spent on bike and ped programs.

The Federal Lands Highway Program continues to fund projects that provide access to and within Federal Lands.

All of these programs benefit local economies, particularly in rural areas. And no one knows this better than you. The Hatfield McCoy motorized trail system in West Virginia, the New River and Virginia Creeper Rail-Trails in southwestern Virginia, the Paiute ATV trail system in Utah, the Monon Trail in Indianapolis, the growing transportation and recreational trail network here in Chattanooga, and the many trail offerings in urban and rural areas across the country help communities retain jobs, attract visitors and improve the quality of life for residents and tourists alike.

Trails provide transportation choices for communities and promote healthy, active lifestyles. They connect people to recreation and business destinations and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by shifting motorists off congested roadways to more environmentally sustainable modes of transportation.

In short, they promote livability. What is livability?

Secretary LaHood has a great definition. He says that livability means being able to take your kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, drop by the grocery or Post Office, go out to dinner and a movie, and play with your kids at the park – all without having to get in your car.

Livability is about giving people the transportation options they want and deserve. It’s also the centerpiece of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities – an interagency initiative. This effort between the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development supports communities who have taken steps to incorporate livability and sustainability into their planning process and provides assistance to those who wish to do so.
This includes planning for new or expanding existing bicycle and pedestrian networks; it includes connectivity between trails and transit, accessibility to green space that is preserved for recreation rather than development, access to affordable housing, and sustainable infrastructure design.

In March, the Secretary announced DOT’s new bicycle and pedestrian policy – to incorporate safe and convenient walking and bicycling facilities into transportation projects. This new policy reinforces the importance of developing active transportation networks and reflects the need to integrate livability into all transportation decisions.

This livability policy shift recognizes that trails are increasingly important to Americans as a source of affordable, safe recreation and as an alternative means of getting to stores, restaurants, and other destinations; creating walkable communities. The cheapest transportation option is a pair of sneakers and the next cheapest is a bike. Providing people the option to bike or walk to destinations reduces their transportation costs and puts more money in their pockets. It just makes sense.

A neighborhood where children can walk to school or the park and adults can walk to the store or the bar and never have to get behind the wheel is much more attractive than a neighborhood that requires you to drive to most, if not all your destinations.
Walkability and connectivity is also increasingly important as U.S. demographics shift, as the population ages and as we become more urbanized.

For the elderly, recreational trails are a safe and peaceful location for exercise. For city-dwellers, they represent an opportunity to reconnect with the peace and quiet of nature.

The Department also recognizes that paths are a crucial component of a transportation network that is friendly to all citizens, particularly those who don’t use cars. Non-auto users are not an insignificant minority, and when our transportation system excludes them they are excluded from a wide range of economic and social opportunities.

Right now, we’re facing a health crisis in America. Thirty two percent of American adults are considered obese and that number is expected to reach forty percent by 2050 if nothing is done. A contributing factor to this problem is that currently, Americans take sixty percent of trips under one-mile in a car. These are trips that could easily be accomplished on foot or on a bike if a trail network were available. We can combat this obesity trend with an increase in trail funding that creates or completes networks and provides safe and affordable transportation options that gets people out of their cars and promotes healthy, active transportation.

Many of you may be familiar with the TIGER Discretionary Grant program originally funded under the Recovery Act and continued this past fiscal year.

This was 1.5 Billion and 600 million dollars in 2009 and 2010 respectively to fund creative projects that may or may not have found their way to funding under the current model. Under TIGER I & II combined, we received almost three thousand applications for capital construction projects. Many of these projects were traditional transportation projects such as road resurfacing, bridge rehab, railroad upgrades, and transit expansion.

We also saw a good number of applications for trail networks or roadway projects that had a trail component as well complete street projects that completely overhauled an urban corridor. Of those nearly 3000 applications we were only able to fund 93 projects. Many of those selected had a trail component which illustrates the administration’s commitment to making these projects competitive.

I want to highlight two projects funded under TIGER I– the Philadelphia Area Pedestrian and Bicycle Network and the Indianapolis Bike and Pedestrian Network. The Philadelphia project will upgrade 16 miles of trail to complete a 128 mile network in Philadelphia and South New Jersey. TIGER funds were targeted in areas closest to downtown that were suffering the most from the economic downturn and will help provide transportation options to those residents and connect them to job centers and services.

The Indianapolis project completes an eight mile network connecting multiple downtown districts and providing non-motorized access to commercial and business centers. The success of the Indianapolis project is reflected in the trend of home owners posting their for sale signs in their backyards that abut the trail because they know that A.) It’s a valued amenity and B.) They’re likely to get more traffic on the trail than on their street.

And that sort of story is not unique; many trail projects have had similar results. Right here in Chattanooga you have businesses lobbying to have trails pass by their facilities to provide their employees with transportation and recreation options. With less than half the money in TIGER I, the Department was still able to fund 2 important trail projects and several others with trail components under TIGER II. One was the East Bay Pedestrian and Bicycle Network in Contra Costa and Alameda counties in California. This project closes several critical gaps in a nearly 200 mile bicycle and pedestrian trail system that serves almost two and a half million residents and gives them another commuting option – off of the freeway.

The projects we saw in the TIGER program show us that people “get it.” They just need a little help getting it off the ground.
TIGER revealed another promising trend: because livability and sustainability are two of the five primary selection criteria for the TIGER program it wasn’t uncommon for applicants to tack on a trail component to a standard road or bridge project to try and improve their chances at selection. This is important because these additions of trail systems to traditional road projects were not difficult and didn’t typically result in a substantial cost increase.

As the NEPA team lead for the TIGER reviews I can tell you that trail and bike ped projects are typically the most ready for a quick start to construction and that’s always good when trying to get money out the door. It’s our hope that if these discretionary funding programs are continued, more applicants will look at all transportation options and trail networks will be more common components in the grant requests.

The emphasis on transportation choices and livability and the other selection criteria in the TIGER program will be carried forward as we move towards a new transportation bill. As many of you know, on Labor Day President Obama announced his public support for a robust six-year surface transportation authorization bill, with $50 billion in up-front investments in highways, transit, rail and aviation. A six-year bill will give State DOTs, transportation agencies and the transportation industry the financial certainty they need to plan for and invest in major multi-year projects.

The President’s announcement demonstrates the Administration’s clear commitment to investing the resources needed to keep our nation moving and spur economic growth and job creation. Transportation has traditionally been a bipartisan issue and at USDOT, which has bipartisan leadership, we have been able to work very well with both sides of the aisle. This ability is critically important in this climate of political and fiscal uncertainty.

The new bill will likely have program consolidation – if this occurs, it’s essential that it is done in a way that preserves the intent and eligibilities of the programs that it consolidates while providing increased funding flexibility.

The flexibility may come from fewer programmatic strings attached to funds allocated to the states. This could provide states with greater discretion on how they expend their funds and provides an opportunity to increase funding in areas that have been previously capped by the existing program structure.

The key is to identify strategies to make that happen. Active transportation projects could be in a position to increase their funding levels under a new bill if they are able to effectively make their case as cost-effective transportation investments. The new performance-based, outcome driven authorization will give preference to those projects that are able to prove their value to the taxpayer. This is good news for trails.

The benefit cost analysis performed under TIGER I & II, found that the benefits of trail systems typically outweighed their costs by a good margin. It’s critical that this message be conveyed to planners and engineers at the local level and to Congress. In these economic times, it can be difficult to justify major capital expenses out of Federal transportation funding sources for purely recreational purposes. However, trails that connect people to job centers, attractions, services and other destinations as well as provide recreation – trails that are part of a network that serve a dual purpose fulfill the administration’s goals of maximizing the public dollar.

A much larger challenge and one that is also much more difficult to tackle is how we will pay for all of this. The President proposed that the new transportation authorization be fiscally responsible – fully paid for and accountable for the public dollars spent. VMT is falling and we are encouraging the expansion of transit and active transport networks – neither of which produces revenue under the current structure. Changes are needed; we just don’t know what they are yet.

As we move forward with the uncertainty of what a new transportation bill will look like, it’s important that you continue to work with your local planners and state DOTs to make sure that they understand the importance of trail projects. Please also consider how a new transportation bill can reflect your interests and share your ideas with the Department and with Congress.
The future of transportation funding may be foggy but trails will continue to be an integral part of any comprehensive transportation plan and the administration is committed to making trails competitive with traditional capital projects under the new authorization.

We will work with you and with Congress to ensure that we continue to fund these important projects that benefit so many Americans.


 

x Read more about current funding for trails, parks, outdoor recreation, and federal land management on the American Trails website:

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