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How can trail advocates make a difference in improving and maintaining facilities in a state with ongoing financial difficulties?

 

Illinois Trail Corps aims to build better trails for less money


photo of person sawing log

Corps members learn skills such as using chain saws

The Vision

Trails for Illinois has a vision for creating jobs for young adults who earn scholarships building trails. Conservation corps are trained, coordinated and equipped by Trails for Illinois, deployed with volunteers from May through September each year, and help build and repair Illinois' network of non-motorized trails.

 

The Need

Trails benefit Illinois, but funding is shrinking. In January 2013, 328 biking, walking, and trail projects in Illinois, totaling more than $327 million dollars, were competing for $49 million of available funding through the Illinois Transportation Enhancements Program (ITEP), the largest source of funding for trails and other nonmotorized projects statewide. Only 54 of those projects received funding.

Studies show that trails in Illinois benefit our communities on a Triple Bottom Line: economic, environmental, and health and wellness. Trails have consistently topped survey results, from recreational preferences to factors that influence home purchases and corporate relocation. From this perspective, the limited amount of trails funded left a mountain of opportunity on the table to improve the economic competitiveness and overall quality of life in the state.

One may point out that these untapped projects could be funded through future awards, but in Illinois this is increasingly unlikely. Federal legislation passed in 2012 slashed funds formerly available through ITEP by roughly half; for 2013 and 2014, approximately $29 million was available through the Transportation Alternatives Program, ITEP’s successor.

photo of group discussion with tools

Training session for crew members

Meanwhile, existing state trails are in crisis, with extended maintenance-related closures impacting communities along the Hennepin, I & M, and Rock Island trails for the last 10 years. The state, while having dedicated programs for funding trail development, failed to award a single project from its Bicycle Path Program from 2008 to 2014. The State of Illinois has swept its own trail grant programs for other budget priorities, and is unlikely to make up any shortfall in the federal trail funding programs.

 

The Opportunity

Establishing an Illinois Trail Corps could leverage the conservation corps and volunteer service models to lower the cost of completing trail projects by 80% or more when compared to projects funded through state and federal grants. Communities passed over for federal grants gain a viable option for moving their projects forward with local funding. Young adults receive job training and a scholarship stipend. Illinois gains a volunteer service opportunity. And more trails in Illinois can be built, repaired and reopened to the public.

 

The Model

Illinois Trail Corps’ model is built on local partnerships plus volunteers plus AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps. A taxpayer-supported federal program, AmeriCorps NCCC trains and deploys teams of young adults aged 18–24 to conservation and community projects nationwide. Trails for Illinois also partners with local advocates and communities to develop a model for trail construction and repair. The goal is a locally administered alternative to existing federal and state trail grant programs at a cost that is affordable to public agencies with available funds.

photo of young worker with long-handled hoe

At work on the trail

Trails for Illinois will provide:
• Overall program development and management
• Training and coordination for Americorps NCCC crew members
• Volunteer recruitment, coordination and training
• On-site direction for work crews
• Necessary tools and equipment
• Media coordination
• Report development and evaluation coordination

Recent examples of Illinois Trail Corps work include projects at Lake Shelbyville and Kickapoo State Recreation Area. These trail rehabilitation, rebuilding, and rerouting efforts have saved the state and communities about $200,000 so far, while building some remarkable trails. Local partners include U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and the General Dacey Trail friends group. Americorps NCCC and volunteers hosted by USACE at their Lake Shelbyville camping areas. Other contributing partners include the National Park Service, Student Conservation Association, Central Illinois Mountain Bike Association, the Boy Scouts of America, and Lakes Volunteer Association.

The Objectives:
• Improve and expand the trail experiences available to visitors
• Achieve 80% cost savings over comparable work funded through federal trail grants
• Provide job skills training for young adults through Americorps NCCC
• Establish a local volunteer trail corps for ongoing trail maintenance
• Engage volunteers to directly contribute to trail development in Illinois
• Develop a model for repeated deployment to trail projects around the state
• Expand the capacity of Trails for Illinois to meet the trail development and repair !needs of the state

 

The fee-for-service model to meet the State’s trail needs

Federal grants, if awarded, cover at most 80% of the total costs of a trail project, requiring at least 20% of the funding to come from local match sources. At the same time, regulatory and administrative requirements for federally funded trail projects push overall project cost 50% higher than the same project completed with local funding. Using federal funding, even the easiest-to-complete multi-use trail construction projects with no property acquisition or expensive infrastructure like bridges typically cost $40-50 per linear foot including engineering, labor and materials.

photo of workers with rocks and wheelbarrow

Rocks needed, and plenty of them

For similar projects, Illinois Trail Corps could build multi-use trail for $8-$12 per linear foot by coordinating civilian conservation corps and volunteers to complete the work. At that level of savings, hiring Illinois Trail Corps becomes a true option for the state and local agencies unable to win a grant from a shrinking federal program.

For many trail maintenance and repair projects, Illinois Trail Corps may be the only affordable alternative. No federal or state trail grant programs are available to local agencies for trail maintenance and repair, and the State of Illinois lacks the resources to repair damage on its own network of trails. By repairing trails such as the Rock Island State Trail, the I&M Canal State Trail, and the Hennepin Canal State Trail through civilian service and volunteer labor, Illinois Trail Corps can help the state re-open and maintain these signature destination trails.

Interestingly, Illinois Trails Corps can also lower the costs of public agencies receiving federal grants in two ways:

1) By completing portions of a trail project prior to pursuing a grant to shrink the amount of federal dollars required to complete the work

2) As part of the federal grant process itself, which allows public agencies receiving
federal funds to contract with youth conservation corps in lieu of the typical requirement to hire professional contractors from a DOT-approved list

The investments made since 2014 to equip Illinois Trail Corps with tools and equipment and to expand its capacity carry over into 2016, allowing Illinois Trail Corps to operate a fee-for-service model without additional donor capital. Overhead will remain small, with fees covering volunteer recruitment; training and coordination of volunteers and Americorps NCCC; travel expenses; and equipment maintenance.

While we work to complete ongoing trail projects, we will be scoping future projects to accommodate what we believe will be rising demand for affordable trail work. The elements of Illinois Trails Corps are scaleable, and we believe can be funded organically. Ultimately, Illinois Trail Corps will be a truly statewide program, using a charter structure similar to peers such as Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail Alliance to off-load site selection, scoping, coordination and supervision to volunteer charter leaders.

 

For more information

Trails for Illinois: www.trailsforillinois.org/ILtrailcorps

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