Putting It All Together: How One Pennsylvania Agency Is Turning Community Trail Visions into Reality

Posted 09/04/14 by Leeann Sinpatanasakul in Building Trails, Policy

Photo © Zachary Marsh

This month, RTC will be shining the spotlight on the state of Pennsylvania, which holds the title for the most rail-trails in the country. Additionally, there are great folks working tirelessly to maintain their trails, advocating for new connections and building out trail networks that will connect many communities in and around the Keystone State. In short, when it comes to trails, Pennsylvania is doing it right!

Check back throughout the month to learn how unique collaborations and forward-thinking agencies are coming together to help communities realize their trail visions and make Pennsylvania a leader in the trails world. There are too many great stories for just one month, but we’ll do our best to bring you the highlights!

For many, government agencies represent a land of endless bureaucracy, where dreams of new trails wither, bogged down by mountains of paperwork and red tape. Not so at the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), which has played a key role in creating new trails for over two decades. To date, Pennsylvania has more than 1,700 miles of trails.

So what makes Pennsylvania a leader in the trail community?

Sure, DCNR is staffed with knowledgeable, energetic staff willing to help build new trails, but it takes a number of elements to complete a trail—particularly funding. While most states rely heavily on federal funding for trails, the additional state-generated funding for trails—Pennsylvania is one of the few states that allocate such funds—allows DCNR to complete numerous trail projects each year. This historical commitment originated with voters in the 1980s, who wanted more access to the outdoors and a higher quality of life. Funding for trails has continued ever since, most notably in the form of the 1993 Keystone Fund for outdoor recreation.

Often, it is a group of interested citizens or a municipality that is first interested in building a new section of trail. With the necessary funding in place, DCNR is well poised to respond to and meet this local community interest.

Vanyla Tierney, recreation planner for the Pennsylvania DCNR’s Bureau of Recreation and Conservation, credits the tenacity of local trail groups and volunteers who work year-in and year-out to achieve their visions for trails in their neighborhoods.

In the beginning of the rail-trail movement, trails groups often were met with distrust in their communities, but that story has changed, according to Tierney. As trail users began to understand the health and economic benefits of having a trail nearby, the desire for trails gained traction, and today, trails are one of the most requested projects at DCNR. Now, with the help and involvement of DCNR, trail segments are being connected into larger systems.

“DCNR gets groups interested in trails and helps them build capacity," states Tierney, adding that DCNR staff also help groups effectively navigating the bureaucracy associated with trail development.

Photo on the Path of Flood Trail © Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

To respond to requests, DCNR also frequently cooperates with other agencies, particularly the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT)—a refreshing change in a sea of isolated agency operations. Of the various initiatives on which they partner, the most notable is their collaboration to fund projects under the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP)—the largest source of federal funds for trails, walking and biking. Twenty years ago when TAP (then called “Transportation Enhancements,” or “TE”) was first created, leaders in both agencies recognized the benefits of working together to fund walking and biking projects, and they have done so ever since. DCNR tackles the planning phase of projects with state funding sources, and PennDOT handles the construction phases with federal TAP funds. In this way, federal and state funding sources work together to create great trails, which are enjoyed by Pennsylvanians and visitors alike.

In many ways, DCNR’s commitment to trails is a direct response to citizen demand. In surveys conducted by the agency to develop the 2009-2013 Pennsylvania Outdoor Recreation Plan, more than half of respondents said they wanted more trails, and state park visitors overwhelmingly indicated that building trail connections, within state parks and to nearby communities, should receive top priority.

“This is what people want,” Tierney says.

Pennsylvania voters have continually backed their desire for access to the outdoors with the funding to build facilities, and the pieces of the trail-building puzzle come together at DCNR.

Put it all together and it’s easy to see why Pennsylvania is a winning state for trails.

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