What Does Obama’s Grow America Act Mean for Trails?

Posted 04/03/15 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Policy

The Burke-Gilman Trail in Washington is used by more than 2,000 people each day. | Photo courtesy University of Washington

GROW America Act Offers Some Benefits But Limited New Investment in Trails, and Bicycle and Pedestrian Networks

On Tuesday, March 30, 2015, the Obama Administration released the latest version of the GROW America Act, intended to fund surface transportation for the next six years. Due to inflation, and the fact that the gas tax has not been increased since 1993, transportation funding is in need of new revenue. This bill would establish a one-time, 14 percent tax on currently untaxed foreign earnings that U.S. companies have accumulated overseas, providing $2 trillion in new transportation funding over the next six years. As the U.S. Department of Transportation’s overview explains, this will provide a $317 billion investment in our nation’s highway system and road safety and a $115 billion investment in transit systems.

Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail in California | Photo by Bryce Hall

So what about trails and bike/ped networks? Like the administration’s similar bill last year, this version of the GROW America Act includes a proposal intended to bring more dollars to fund local transportation priorities—like safe places to walk and bike. The bill would do this by allowing the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish “high-performance” metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), which would receive greater control over funds allocated through the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), the main source of funds for bicycle and pedestrian projects. MPOs are the main local authorities charged with transportation planning in every metropolitan area, and this would allow those who work in regions that excel in certain performance areas, such as bicycle and pedestrian safety, to dedicate more of those funds to local priorities.

What the bill does not include is any explicit increase in funding for TAP, or for trails or pedestrian and bicycle networks, in any other program. Because funding for TAP is set by a formula—2 percent, to be precise—of overall funding from certain titles of the transportation funding bill, an increase in road funding also would mean a proportional increase in TAP funds. However, the new bill would do very little to get people out of their cars and onto their bikes or feet. It would not address the large nationwide demand for funding more networks of connected trails, bike lanes and sidewalks, nor would it increase the amount set aside in TAP for recreational trails.

Although the administration’s proposal is not likely to pass Congress, RTC appreciates the administration’s effort to promote bicycle and pedestrian connectivity in new and innovative ways. On the other hand, the Obama Administration should have recognized the demand for recreational trails, and bicycle and pedestrian networks, and proposed to increase federal investment in these active-transportation modes accordingly. RTC will continue to work with Congress to ask that any bill to reauthorize our federal surface transportation funding program includes significant investment in trails, and bicycle and pedestrian networks, and builds on our active-transportation system to enable people to walk or bike to wherever they need to go.

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