In early February, the White House released a proposal to leverage $1.3 trillion in non-federal investment to repair and modernize America’s infrastructure. The proposal was met in Congress with skepticism and an unwillingness to take up legislation given a lack of revenue. While RTC welcomed the president’s interest in sorely needed infrastructure investments, we found both his proposal—and the Democratic leadership’s responses to it—lackluster. Each missed the mark on the essential question of how our infrastructure can meet the changing mobility needs of 21st-century America.
Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) announced a new program, BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development), which replaces the wildly popular TIGER program and also seeks to pursue many of the principles in the White House infrastructure plan on a small scale.
Here’s what these changes mean for trails and the future of walking and biking investment.
TIGER Becomes BUILD
Since 2009, the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) program has been a popular competitive grant program for funding innovative multimodal and multijurisdictional projects that don’t fit neatly into traditional funding streams. The program has also been used successfully to help build dozens of trail, walking and biking projects. To date, the program has provided $350 million for active transportation projects and an additional $1.3 billion for road and transit projects that contain a walking or biking element.
Last Friday, USDOT issued a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) for $1.5 billion in funding for a new round of TIGER Grants—except that the program isn’t being called TIGER anymore. Enter: BUILD. The good news is that BUILD keeps many of TIGER’s eligibilities and requirements in place, including eligibility for trail, walking and biking projects that form part of the multimodal transportation network and provide safe community connections. However, the change puts a distinct twist on the program, which incorporates the infrastructure priorities the administration has been promoting.
Back in February, the White House infrastructure proposal outlined three signature programs:
- Infrastructure Incentive Initiative (50 percent; $100 billion over 10 years)
- Transformative Projects Program (10 percent; $20 billion over 10 years)
- Rural Infrastructure Program (25 percent; $50 billion over 10 years)
BUILD introduces three noteworthy changes to the TIGER program that echo the administration's infrastructure proposal.
First, projects that can generate more non-federal revenue will be considered more competitive. In the White House infrastructure proposal, the "Infrastructure Incentive Initiative” was meant to leverage non-federal sources of funding (80 percent or more) to complete projects. BUILD adds “Non-Federal Revenue for Transportation Infrastructure Investment” as a primary metric for demonstrating that a project has merit. This will put proposals from communities that have limited ability to raise revenue, including rural areas, at a disadvantage. What's more, BUILD disallows applicants from counting revenue approved before Jan. 1, 2015, which will be a barrier for places that took early action to make much-needed investments in transportation infrastructure. These changes are not particular to trails, but trails that previously could combine limited non-federal funding with impressive return on investment as a competitive strategy will apparently not fare as well as in the past.
Second, in the president’s initial proposal, the "Transformative Projects Program" was meant to make project sponsors think big with regard to demonstration, planning and capital projects. While “innovation” has always been a secondary consideration for merit under TIGER, it is now a primary focus for BUILD merit criteria. Many trail networks can make a great case for innovation, but how USDOT evaluates this within BUILD remains to be seen.
Finally, the "Rural Infrastructure Program" was a signature part of the president’s infrastructure proposal, and it lives on in BUILD. USDOT explicitly states that it “plans to award a greater share of BUILD transportation funding to projects located in rural areas that align well with the merit criteria than to those in urban areas.” This is no surprise given that the most recent round of TIGER grants released last month awarded a greater share of funding to rural communities. Given this change in emphasis, RTC will encourage rural partners who can access non-federal funding sources to pursue this opportunity during the next grant cycle.
Looking Ahead for Trails and Active Transportation
The changes made to the BUILD program are far less sweeping than the grand infrastructure proposal set forth by the administration earlier this year. But it shouldn't be lost that these changes reflect the president's priorities of leveraging state, local and private investment in infrastructure and focusing resources on rural areas. And it’s important to note that we have yet to fully understand the impact that these changes could have on trails, biking and walking.
Nowhere in its efforts to spur infrastructure investment has the administration pointed to the important role that active transportation will serve in meeting the needs of 21st-century communities.
At this point, no one in Washington—neither Republicans nor Democrats in Congress, nor the administration—has come forward with a bold new vision that addresses the rapidly changing mobility needs of modern America. Tomorrow’s America will need to prioritize and emphasize human-centered mobility. Already, new technologies and trends—such as ride sharing, bike sharing, and the exploding popularity of walkable urban neighborhoods and regional trail networks—are changing the landscape of American communities.
More people than ever are demanding safe places to walk and bike. In the future, emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles will continue to transform our mobility choices. We will need a suite of transportation investments—for vehicles, for transit, and yes, for trails, walking and biking—to meet these quickly evolving needs.
Better maintenance of existing roadways. More investment in transit systems to relieve congestion. Connected, off-road trail networks that safely get people where they want to go, whether they are walking or rolling. These are infrastructure investments that should be prioritized by Congress and the administration—as they will be essential to meeting modern mobility needs.
Already, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is advancing these priorities across the country through our TrailNationTM work to create connected networks of trails and other safe walking and biking infrastructure. We believe in the transformative power of these networks to impact the health, environment, economic vitality and mobility of communities—all in ways that promote equity and inclusion. And we continue to promote those transformative impacts to decision makers through our Trails Transform America campaign.
Trails and active transportation are eligible for BUILD grants, and we encourage communities to take advantage of them, but there is far more work to be done. We will continue to advocate for transformative changes in federal, state and local policies and practices to enable American communities to meet new mobility needs and become the safe, healthy and thriving places that they envision for themselves. We hope you’ll lend your voice.