White House Budget Sets Troublesome Tone for Trails

Posted 05/24/17 by Kevin Mills, Leeann Sinpatanasakul in Policy, Taking Action

Photo courtesy Gareth Milner | CC BY 2.0

Yesterday, the president released his budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2018.

While White House budget proposals are little more than agenda-setting exercises—and many in Congress have said that this one is dead on arrival—the agenda it aims to set would not be good for trails, walking and biking.

The top line numbers for transportation don’t look all that bad in comparison to other agencies—just a spending cut of $2.4 billion or 13 percent. But the budget does outline principles that will guide the administration’s philosophy toward infrastructure and serve as warning shots.

First, it follows through on the White House’s earlier promise to gut TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) funding, eliminating a program that has provided critical funding for innovative trail network projects. Second, what’s buried in the budget narrative may re-energize Congressional opponents of active transportation programs. 

What’s at stake for trails without TIGER?

The president’s budget proposal eliminates all funding for the wildly popular TIGER program, which is bad news for trails and active transportation. Without TIGER, trails could miss out on hundreds of millions in funding. Since the program began in 2009, TIGER has provided nearly $340 million in funding for active transportation projects and trail networks like the Circuit Trails in Philadelphia, Cleveland Metroparks and the Atlanta BeltLine. What’s more, using the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials’ methodology to calculate jobs per mile of trail built, we project that TIGER investments in active transportation have generated thousands of jobs.

Atlanta BeltLine | Photo by Jim Brown

TIGER is much more than a program that supports trails; it funds all transportation modes and is unique in that it encourages cross-jurisdictional and multimodal cooperation, breaking down traditional bureaucratic silos and looking at balanced transportation systems as a whole. This makes the program intentional, focused and efficient in the projects it selects—and effective in achieving outcomes after construction.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has thus far awarded TIGER funding to diverse projects including roads and bridges, ports, railways, transit, freight operations and, of course, trails and other walking and biking infrastructure. However, the new president and transportation secretary will set their own funding priorities. Will the new leadership continue to invest in a balanced transportation system that focuses on getting people where they want to go safely and conveniently, rather than solely on moving motor vehicles as quickly as possible? Right now, the budget proposal and its embedded principles suggest likely not.

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What’s the longer-term outlook for infrastructure and trails?

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona | Photo courtesy Gage Skidmore | CC BY-SA 2.0

During his campaign, President Trump proposed making a $1 trillion investment to address the country’s crumbling infrastructure. While a full infrastructure plan is yet to be released, the budget proposes to fulfill that promise with a $200 billion federal investment over 10 years. To get to $1 trillion in spending, that investment assumes that states, local governments and the private sector will be able to invest $800 billion to get the job done. Few in Congress seem to believe that anywhere near that much leverage is possible.

The budget also calls for an end to general fund infusions to the Highway Trust Fund, eliminating $95 billion in expected transportation spending over the same 10 years, raising further doubts about the extent to which infrastructure investment would increase if the president’s budget proposal were to pass. What this boils down to is that only 10 percent—$105 billion—of the administration’s promise of a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure is actually budgeted.

While we don’t know what the administration will prioritize in its infrastructure plan—and exactly where trails will fall—the proposal principles place an emphasis on vastly reducing the role of the federal government in providing transportation funding for states and local communities. This scenario emphasizes a “self-help” approach to infrastructure, leaving state and local governments on their own to find revenue for local transportation priorities. That’s a challenge in any climate, and it’s amplified in an environment where the needs consistently outpace the available funds.

The Cleveland Lakefront Bikeway passes major attractions like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. | Photo courtesy Traillink.com/roddo

This principle also glosses over the fact that infrastructure is already funded with a mix of federal, state and local support. Nearly all projects—including trail and active transportation projects—require a local investment (usually 20 percent of the project cost) in order to receive federal funding. The fact is, without dedicated federal programs like the Transportation Alternatives Set-Aside or the Recreational Trails Program, most trails we have today would not have been built. Since 1991, these programs have helped build thousands of trails across America using a mix of federal, state and local funding to advance goals of creating more options for mobility and recreation nationwide.

We are concerned that the administration’s principles may echo those in Congress who have argued that the federal role in transportation should be narrowed to providing for interstate highways rather than a balanced transportation system geared to respond to the needs of America’s communities. This is not a new concept or a new concern. Think tanks and members of Congress have gone down this road before. When they did, they tried to eliminate funding for transit, and for trails, walking and biking—including taking an axe to Transportation Alternatives and the Recreational Trails Program.

We already see the signs of what may be to come. The president’s budget calls for deep reductions in funding to transit, which already receives significantly less funding than highways. In comparison, for every $100 of federal surface transportation funding, about $78.50 goes to highways, $20 to transit, and $1.50 to trails, walking and biking. Transit—and trails, walking and biking—are important parts of a balanced transportation system. If history is any guide, an attack on transit will lead those who wish to focus the federal government solely on roads to try to eliminate funding for trails and active transportation as well.    

Our big takeaways.

In short, the budget proposal and the infrastructure principles included in the budget are only the tip of the iceberg. The administration has signaled interest in a tectonic shift in federal priorities, aiming to assist far fewer projects and elevating those that leverage the private sector. How Congress responds to the president’s stated objectives will be the most significant factor in determining the future of public investment in trails. But how the administration interprets and develops these ideas will also be transformative.

It is up to the active transportation movement—those of us who use and love trails and those of us who advocate for trails and active transportation—to shape these perceptions and objectives to ensure that decision-makers recognize trails as essential assets for communities across America. You can count on us to closely monitor the situation and work with Congress and the administration to ensure communities that want to build trail networks get the federal support they need to make that happen.

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