New Bill Maintains Federal Funding; Creates New Opportunities to Connect Trails

Posted 12/02/15 by Kevin Mills in Policy

Photo by Adam Coppola Photography

UPDATE: President Obama signed the FAST Act (discussed in this blog) into law on Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, ensuring that states and localities will have a dedicated source of transportation funding for the next five years.

On the afternoon of Dec. 1, Congress released the text of what is expected to be the final version of a five-year transportation bill, the FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act. Both chambers of Congress—the House and Senate—are likely to vote on final passage this week, and President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law next week. The verdict is in: Trails, walking and biking are here to stay as part of America’s transportation system.

Core Funding for Trails Remains

The Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) continues to house the three original funding programs that have long been the backbone of funding for trails, walking and biking: Transportation Alternatives (formerly Transportation Enhancements), the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) and Safe Routes to School. Time and time again, members of Congress have attempted to cut funding or eliminate TAP altogether. In this bill, TAP remains very similar to the program we know today, although the FAST Act makes a symbolic structural change by moving TAP into a broad umbrella program as a set-aside. In addition, regional transportation organizations in urban areas are given the ability to transfer out half of their TAP funds to other uses, representing a new vulnerability for TAP.

Photo courtesy Rusty Clark | CC by 2.0

The program will see an immediate increase from $820 million to $835 million per year, and another $15 million increase to $850 million per year for the final three years of the bill. While these marginal gains are not equal to the needs of a rapidly growing active-transportation movement, even a modest increase is a substantial achievement in a fiscally constrained political environment in which TAP is routinely targeted for reduction or outright elimination.

This outcome is a testament to the strength of our partners and supporters who helped to defend TAP during critical negotiation periods, and determined lawmakers who made it a priority to preserve TAP.

New Financing for Trail and Active-Transportation Networks

In addition to the core funding provided by TAP, including RTP, a new source of low-interest loan financing will now be made available to communities to help connect and accelerate completion of active-transportation networks. Many communities have individual trails, protected bike lanes or sidewalks scattered throughout neighborhoods, but filling in the gaps will enable more people to safely walk or bike to their destinations.

Photo by Adam Coppola Photography

As mentioned in previous blogs, RTC sought several changes that would make the TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Financing and Investment Act) program accessible for trail and active-transportation networks.

The reforms sought by RTC and included in the bill are as follows:

  1. The minimum project size is lowered from $50 million to $10 million for projects involving local governments. This is important, as active-transportation infrastructure rarely meets the higher cost threshold.
  2. Multiple segments of a network can be bundled into a single project (called a "Master Credit Agreement") to meet the $10 million threshold, thereby making it possible for communities to complete projects faster and more cohesively.
  3. The application process is streamlined for low-cost, low-risk projects—like trail networks—to reduce the transaction costs and make it affordable to apply. In addition, at least $2 million per year will be available to defray application costs for smaller projects. 
  4. State Infrastructure Banks may use TIFIA funds to make financing more accessible for rural projects.

With the passage of these changes to the TIFIA program, RTC is excited to have secured Congressional recognition of the value of providing local governments with the ability to use innovative financing for low-cost transportation options, like trail and active-transportation networks.

If you are a trail advocate or trail-building professional, stay tuned. RTC will be hosting webinars and providing resources to help you understand just how to use this new financing tool.

Looking Ahead

The FAST Act is big news. In contrast to the repeated short-term extensions passed by Congress for the last year and a half, it means that states and localities will have a dedicated source of transportation funding for the next five years.

Photo by Adam Coppola Photography

Going into the reauthorization period, the trail and active-transportation community faced an uphill battle against those who aimed to slash vital programs used to build safe places to walk and bike. Our partners and trail supporters were instrumental in enabling us to counter attacks on core programs. We also secured new provisions on low-interest loans that will help those communities who are ready and willing to invest in active transportation.

If you called or emailed your senator or representative this year in support of trails, walking and biking, thank you! This is your victory, too. Thanks to the hard work of everyone involved, local communities will have continued federal funding to create the trail and active-transportation networks they want and need.

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