A Prescription for Congress: Invest in Transportation That Meets Americans' Needs

Posted 02/13/18 by Patrick Wojahn, Kevin Mills in Policy, Building Trails

On Monday, President Trump released his proposal for federal policy to build—and rebuild—our nation’s infrastructure. Over 10 years, the plan would provide $200 billion in federal infrastructure investment meant to leverage $1.5 trillion in total investment. Now that the president’s proposal is out, Congress will spend the months ahead proposing new plans and deciding the best way to proceed. Indeed, just last Friday, the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives offered their own broad outline of a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure.

At the White House and on Capitol Hill, Washington seems preoccupied with debating the exact amount of federal funding and whether regulations make investments better or worse. While these are important questions, of fundamental importance is ensuring that investments of federal taxpayer dollars will meet the changing infrastructure needs of the American public.

More infrastructure investment could be great for America, but only if it is invested in a balanced transportation system that meets the evolving needs of 21st-century America. Balanced transportation means investing in maintenance for our roads and bridges. It means investing in public transit and rail systems. And it means investing in trail and active transportation networks that help Americans safely get where they need to go. With almost 40 percent of all trips within a 20-minute bike ride and more than 20 percent within a 20-minute walk, Americans want and need more places to safely walk and bike. Robust investment in trail, walking and biking networks is an essential part of a balanced transportation system to secure America’s future.


With almost 40 percent of all trips within a 20-minute bike ride and more than 20 percent within a 20-minute walk, Americans want and need more places to safely walk and bike.


So where does the president’s proposal stand on trails and a vision for future transportation?

What President Trump’s Proposals Means for Trails

Woman riding Capital Bikeshare bike in front of the White House
Woman riding Capital Bikeshare bike in front of the White House

The $200 billion proposal allocates most funds between the following: an Infrastructure Incentives Program that puts a specific emphasis on leveraging investment from private sources as well as state and local governments; a Rural Infrastructure Program; and a Transformative Projects Program meant to highlight innovative ideas and optimize return on taxpayer investment. The proposal also bolsters programs for financing infrastructure and eliminates regulatory requirements for infrastructure projects.

In theory, the president’s proposal recognizes the need to invest limited resources in the most effective projects but does little to reward projects that deliver high economic and social returns on investment, like trails. In contrast, the Infrastructure Incentives Program prioritizes the dollar value of projects—clearly implying that bigger is better. Although trail projects offer superior return on investment, they are almost always much smaller in size compared to road and bridge projects. In fact, the proposal fails to mention trail projects or active transportation infrastructure at all, even though they typically have exactly the type of transformative impact that the president has said he wishes to see. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult for state and local governments to access the funds they need to build the trail projects they want.


In theory, the president’s proposal recognizes the need to invest limited resources in the most effective projects but does little to reward projects that deliver high economic and social returns on investment, like trails.


Of even greater concern is that the president’s proposal essentially prioritizes private and local dollars over public need. Half of the proposal’s funding—$100 billion—goes toward the Infrastructure Incentives Program, which puts a heavy weight on the amount of non-federal investment, both through an initial score for the project (70 percent) and then by multiplying that weighted score by the percentage of non-federal revenues that would be used to fund the project. A federal grant under this program could not exceed 20 percent of the new revenue for the project. This approach prioritizes projects that have the most non-federal capital behind them, regardless of the positive or negative merits of a project and whether it is a wise investment of federal taxpayer dollars. This will severely constrain the ability of the federal government to shape an infrastructure future where people have a range of modes to select from and choose the one that most benefits them and their communities.

It’s important to note that one area where the benefits of trails are often the strongest—the economic and social return on investment of these projects—is given inconsequential consideration, only five percent of the total score for a project. A proposal designed to address the balanced transportation needs of Americans should give great weight to economic and social benefits. The ability to leverage state, local or private funding has value for such beneficial projects.

Other programs in the proposal also use scoring criteria that give far too little weight to the ultimate benefit and value of the projects. The House Democratic leadership’s proposal fails to focus on the sorts of infrastructure we most need, as well. It looks to build “world-class transportation systems” but does not name how it would create a balanced transportation system—and how it would ensure that more people could walk or bike safely to their destinations.

Our Message to Congress for Balanced Transportation

Photo by Ada Hao, courtesy RTC
Photo by Ada Hao, courtesy RTC

Now that the president’s proposal has been released, Congress must step up and create a strong vision for a forward-thinking 21st-century way of life and economy. This vision must include transportation networks that give more people the flexibility and opportunity to travel by walking and bicycling.

Through our Trails Transform America campaign, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) is showing how real investment in trails and active transportation networks can transform places for people. As communities around the nation have already learned, building connected networks opens up new travel options for people, improves their physical and mental health and results in mode shift by encouraging people to get out of their cars and walk or bike to jobs, schools, shopping areas and wherever else they need to go.

RELATED: A Message to President Trump and Congress: Trails Transform Our Nation

Trail networks also have the potential to bring considerable private, state and local investment to the table—generating billions of dollars over time in economic development, business investments and direct spending, and saving millions in health-care costs for communities by supporting increased physical activity and healthy lifestyles. Trails don’t just change mobility; from our decades of experience we know they change lives and transform communities and entire regions.

Trail and active transportation networks are part of a strong transportation future in which they complement transit and other modes to make our transportation system work effectively for everyone. RTC specifically calls on Congress to ensure that new federal transportation funds include a robust investment in these networks and that they are broadly eligible across all transportation programs.

Only then will all Americans be able to realize the transformative potential of trail and active transportation networks.

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