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Federal Transportation Bills

Though often invisible to the casual trail user, federal funding is central to building rail-trails and other active transportation facilities. And since 1991, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has been advocating for the federal funding that has made thousands of miles of trail possible. For being so critical to trail development, you might be surprised to learn that just a tiny fraction of the vast transportation bill is spent on walking and biking. Less than two cents on the transportation dollar is shared among all the trail, walking and biking facilities we enjoy every day.

But, with cripplingly high gas prices, mounting concerns about climate change and sobering obesity rates, RTC knows that that tiny fraction must be increased to meet rising transportation needs. The federal government must play a greater role in active transportation as we move forward.

Two "T"s
Since 1991, federal transportation bills have promoted trails, bike lanes, and sidewalks to carry some of our nation's transportation load, primarily by funding the Transportation Enhancements (TE)program—the nation's largest funding source for trails, walking and biking.

In 1991, Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), the first federal transportation bill following the interstate highway system era. The bill recognized the role of transit and the need for more local decision-making in transportation. Most notably for proponents of walking and biking, ISTEA established the TE program. Through ISTEA, active transportation—largely through TE—received $784 million in funding nationally.

Soon after ISTEA's expiration in 1997, its successor, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) was passed in 1998 and authorized through 2004. TEA-21 continued many of the funding and policy efforts initiated as part of ISTEA, but saw a large increase in active transportation funding, reaching $2.3 billion.

Though funding was increasing, it would be TEA-21's reauthorization that would set the stage for the beginnings of a bold new future of active transportation.

The Next "T"
Shortly after the expiration of TEA-21, in 2005 Congress passed the current transportation bill, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). In addition to even more funding for TE and other programs benefiting walking and biking than in TEA-21 ($286 billion over four years), SAFETEA-LU broke new ground with two innovative programs designed to promote active transportation: Safe Routes to School, to encourage children to safely walk and bike to school, and the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program (NTPP).

Championed by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and heavily advocated for by RTC, the NTPP (Sec. 1807 of SAFETEA-LU) is a forward-thinking program that aims to demonstrate that targeted federal investments in active transportation in select communities can lead to large numbers of people switching from driving to walking and biking to get around.

The Next "T"
Building off of the success of the NTPP, RTC immediately began organizing a national campaign for an ambitious program to make walking and biking mainstream transportation priorities in the next federal bill. RTC's Campaign for Active Transportation was part of a larger effort to grow the NTPP into a full-fledged program with investments of millions of dollars in dozens of communities to promote walking and biking efforts.

Unfortunately, for those who envision a national transportation system that includes increased walking and bicycling, the successor to SAFETEA-LU took a huge step backwards. "Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century" (MAP-21) reduces the amount of funding available to active transportation, allows states to opt out of funding these programs (effectively denying many local communities their priorities) and adds many other new—and expensive—eligibilities that will likely make it more difficult for communities to invest in their active transportation priorities. For more, read RTC's in-depth analysis of the bill.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
The Duke Ellington Building
2121 Ward Ct., NW
5th Floor
Washington, DC 20037
+1-202-331-9696