Leveraging Federal Dollars to Create a Regional Legacy

Posted 09/29/14 by Sarah Clark Stuart in Policy, Building Trails

Photo courtesy Sarah Clark Stuart

When all 750 miles of the Circuit are connected, Greater Philadelphia will have a trail network unlike any other in the country—connecting the urban, suburban and rural communities of the fifth-largest metropolitan region in the U.S. 

Sarah Clark Stuart is deputy director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and chair of the Circuit Coalition. In honor of Pennsylvania Month, Sarah shares the story of how the Circuit has leveraged federal funds to maximize their impact on trail development. Projects across the country should take note: Finding funding for major trail networks is not easy, but by leveraging existing funds, prioritizing trails and capitalizing on existing relationships and connections, the Circuit is a shining example of how trail development is done successfully and how Pennsylvania is a trail state that is doing it right! 


In early October, the Philadelphia region will celebrate the opening of the 0.75-mile-long Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk. This trail, which is built along the east side of the Schuylkill River, is the final in a set of trail segments funded by federal dollars in 2010 that sparked an incredible amount of interest, enthusiasm and prioritization of other trail projects around the region. As we celebrate the opening of the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk, an even greater cause for celebration is the way in which federal funds have served as the catalysts for a region-wide trail network.

There are a few federal programs—run by different agencies—that provide funds that support active transportation. Each of these programs require matches from the project sponsor and, therefore, leverage local and county funds, other federal funds and, in some cases, private dollars.   

Photo courtesy Sarah Clark Stuart

Trails are an important priority for the state of Pennsylvania, and dozens of studies have been conducted on many miles of trails. However, trails must compete with many other types of bicycle/pedestrian projects for the federal funds managed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), and construction funding is highly competitive.  

In 2009, TIGER (Transportation Investment for Generation of Economic Recovery), a federal competitive grant program initiated by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), created the first opportunity for the Philadelphia-Camden metropolitan region to prioritize its most “ready to go” trail projects and help move the needle on completing the region’s network of trails. Of the original, and very extensive, application submitted by the City of Philadelphia, the region was awarded a TIGER grant of $23 million for 10 (integral) projects.

Seven trail projects in the application were not funded—which was a disappointment to the surrounding suburban counties; however, the TIGER grant did ultimately benefit them. The grant prompted the William Penn Foundation, a local philanthropy organization, to make an unprecedented $10 million grant to fund a new regional, competitive re-grant program for planning, design and capital for trails. Over three years, more than 20 miles of trails were built, and another 25 were planned. In addition, the William Penn Foundation was inspired to work with the trail advocacy community to rebrand the region’s trail network—an effort that gave birth to the Circuit Trails

It was the spark from the TIGER grant, and the involvement and commitment from the William Penn Foundation, that has helped raise the profile and potential for all 750 miles of trails that comprise the region’s trail network.

The federal funds from the TIGER grant also brought certain projects to the attention of the community and reinvigorated interest in their development. This is absolutely the case with the Manayunk Bridge, a beautiful structure that spans a highway, two rail lines and the Schuylkill River between Philadelphia and Lower Merion Township in Montgomery County. While the project wasn’t among those chosen for the 2010 TIGER grant, being part of the original proposal brought the attention necessary for decision-makers to find other sources of funding beyond the TIGER grant. In an unprecedented short amount of time, the City of Philadelphia teamed up with Montgomery County, Lower Merion and local funding sources, including the William Penn Foundation’s new trail grant program, and the bridge is expected to open in 2015!  

The 2010 TIGER grant was limited to 10 projects in two counties. However, it leveraged another $10 million for 30 projects in the nine-county region and significantly changed the dynamic of trail prioritization and construction! 

As the Circuit continues to develop the 750-mile network, the leveraging of federal funds will continue in an effort to maximize the impact of every dollar spent for trails.

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