New Congress, New President: What’s Ahead for Trails?

Posted 01/24/17 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Policy

Photo Courtesy Adam Coppola Photography

This is a significant time for America. The 115th Congress is underway, and a new administration is taking its place in Washington, D.C. On the heels of what has arguably been the most divisive presidential election in modern history, there is much uncertainty about what’s to come, including for active transportation—trails, walking and biking.

Reading the Tea Leaves

President Trump has made it clear that one of his top priorities is investment in our country’s infrastructure—noting during his inaugural address that we will build “roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation.” And while details of this proposal thus far are scarce, any investments in infrastructure could also mean new opportunities for trails and active transportation—particularly given the linkages between trails and the priorities of the new administration, from spurring economic development and bringing jobs to communities, to consistently delivering high rates of return on investment. And just today, Democrats in the Senate have also announced a general plan for infrastructure investment and asked the president to join them.

Photo Courtesy katiebordner | CC by 2.0

That’s the optimistic view. Evidence suggests that some who are taking new leadership roles could be at philosophical odds with the active transportation community about how best to meet people’s transportation needs. Some transportation experts are skeptical that the proposal Trump outlined will meaningfully address the issue nationally. Further, no one outside the president’s inner circle seems to know what to expect from the new infrastructure council the president established last week, led by two New York City real estate developers who will oversee the proposal’s development.

Right now, the future is uncertain, paving the way for potential challenges and potential benefits.

We know we have our work cut out for us to make the case for trails, but we also see opportunities ahead to increase investment in trails and active transportation networks.

Some in Congress hope that Trump’s proposal can become a way to bring more dollars to existing transportation programs, while others view it as an attempt to introduce a new layer of private investment and public-private partnerships above and beyond existing programs. In negotiations between Congress and the White House, it’s possible that both approaches could be employed to a degree.

But, the big question will be whether Congress finds and commits the money to pay for what’s been touted as a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure.  Members of Congress have introduced ideas to provide additional revenue for infrastructure, but there are many hurdles to passing major legislation and differing priorities for where to commit resources.

What’s Next?

Few in Congress have any appetite to revisit the structure and policies of the FAST Act, which was just passed in 2015. That’s good news because trails were included in the FAST Act under the Transportation Alternatives program—the main source of federal funding for trails and active transportation. However, to reap the potential rewards of additional investment if an infrastructure bill gains traction, advocates may need to weather new attacks on trail funding.

So where does this leave us?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has suggested it would be a waste of time for his party to even discuss an infrastructure bill. Still, many in Congress who see crumbling infrastructure in their districts believe that something should be done. Bottom line, since we expect that infrastructure will be among the federal legislative priorities for the year, it is up to us to make sure that trails and active transportation get a fair share of the funding if Congress finds a way forward.

Photo Courtesy Green Lane Project

Right now, based on what we know, the leading option under consideration by Congress is to pass a tax reform plan that creates revenue that could be used for infrastructure programs. But it remains to be seen whether this or any other option will get enough support to pass Congress. What we do know is that we need to continue to make the case for trails in Congress by communicating the impact they bring communities across the country with regard to transportation, economic development, health and the environment.

We’ve spent the past several months meeting with members of Congress and their staff to get their perspectives about what’s to come. We’re also closely tracking the Trump administration so that we’re ready to engage with leaders at the U.S. Department of Transportation and other agencies as they take office. And we’ve been working hard to gather a strong show of public support for trails; nearly 37,000 people signed our petition to let the Trump administration know that they believe trails are an important part of a balanced transportation system.

RELATED: An Active Transportation Agenda for the Trump Administration

So, while it’s still unclear exactly how trails, walking and biking will fare in this new political climate, we are prepared to make the case for trails and active transportation programs, whether they are under attack or in a position to grow to meet demand. 

To win, we will need your help to make the case for trails. Share your stories about how trails have contributed to your local economy. We are looking for examples of businesses that have been supported by trails, and quotes from business owners, elected officials and others in your community who can share how trails are strengthening the economy. In turn, we’ll be sharing stories with members of Congress and the Trump administration so they know how trails are making a difference for the bottom line in communities across the country. Submit your story now.

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