First Glimpses of Infrastructure Proposal Trickle Out: Here's What It Could Mean for America's Trails

Posted 01/25/18 by Kevin Mills in Policy, America's Trails, Building Trails

Photo by Ada Hao, Courtesy RTC

During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump promoted an idea that nearly all Americans agree on: Fund infrastructure to revitalize America’s crumbling roads, railways, water systems and more. Since then, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has been closely tracking the prospect of an infrastructure bill to maximize opportunities for trails, walking and biking.

Needless to say, we’ve been eagerly awaiting the White House’s proposal. And just this week, we received the most revealing information to date—and a clue to the president’s State of the Union talking points. On Monday, news outlet Politico obtained a six-page draft "funding principles" document from the White House. Here’s what you need to know about how it would affect trails, walking and biking if enacted, and what RTC is doing about it.

New Proposed Programs for Infrastructure

The proposal includes eight different funding programs and policies, all of which align with the primary funding vehicles that the administration has alluded to previously. The three primary funding programs—one that promotes public-private partnerships, one that promotes projects with transformative impact and one that promotes investment in rural communities—could be specifically relevant to trails and walking and biking infrastructure. 

Each has been assigned a specific percentage share of total appropriations, which is assumed to be $200 billion over 10 years based on previous statements. The shares for the primary programs are broken down as follows:

1) Infrastructure Incentive Initiative (50 percent; $100 billion)
2) Transformative Projects Program (10 percent; $20 billion)
3) Rural Infrastructure Program (25 percent; $50 billion)

Percentages are included in the draft proposal and do not add up to 100 percent.

Infrastructure Incentives

Photo by Ada Hao, Courtesy RTC

The Infrastructure Incentives Initiative would place a strong emphasis on funding projects that already have significant state, local or private funds committed to construction and to ongoing maintenance, which would account for 70 percent of a project’s score. The federal share would be capped at 20 percent, with a strong incentive to ask for less to be competitive.

It should be noted that the initiative puts little weight (5 percent) on the economic and social benefits of projects, where trail projects thrive and succeed. We know that active transportation projects provide an excellent return on investment in health-care savings, job creation, local economic revenue, increased property values, the environment and more. In summary, the emphasis would be put almost entirely on project size and non-federal funding sources rather than merit, creating a playing field in which federal investments will gravitate to projects with powerful patrons instead of those that deliver priority public outcomes.

Transformative Projects Program

Bayshore Bikeway in San Diego | Photo by TrailLink user vikemaze

Previously, the Transformative Projects Program had appeared to be the centerpiece of the Administration’s proposal. It is disappointing to see that it is now slated to make up only 10 percent of the total funding—as we know how transformative trail projects can be for every region of the country. For example, studies in 2012 and 2013 of the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania and Maryland found that the trail had an estimated direct economic impact of $50 million each year for local communities along the route and received some 940,000 trail users annually.   

It’s estimated that a regional bike plan in San Diego could enhance traffic flow by reducing automobile trips by 189,035 per weekday, and the developing 225-mile Miami LOOP could result in up to $1.8 billion in estimated user spending and, as a result, $125 million in state sales-tax revenues over 20 years.

In this proposed draft, grants with varying levels of matching fund requirements could go for demonstrations, final design and engineering, or construction (with a stipulation that the federal government “would have rights to share in the project value”). Grants come with minimum requirements for private involvement, though not every transformative project could garner interest from private investors.

Rural Infrastructure Program

The Rural Infrastructure Program would provide states with resources for a broad range of infrastructure projects, as well as a rural performance grant program to implement a statewide investment plan. Funding in this category would go toward projects in rural areas with a population of less than 50,000.

Federal Credit Programs

RTC would support the inclusion of the draft’s proposed boost for Federal Credit Programs, which is currently slated at about 7 percent of total appropriations, provided we see full implementation of the reforms passed in the FAST Act, which would ensure smaller projects like trails and walking and biking infrastructure can access financing. The proposal would provide more low-interest financing to help states and communities spur new infrastructure investment.

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What’s Missing and Next Steps

What’s missing from the proposal is any mention of eligibility and inclusion of trails, walking and biking. Our analysis here presumes their inclusion, but it should not be taken for granted. Trail and active transportation networks are as vital to the modern American economy and way of life as roads and railroads, offering critical mobility connections, job creation, increased visitor spending and regional competitive advantage.

As this debate unfolds, RTC will specifically be calling on policy makers to provide robust federal funding sufficient to meet the burgeoning demand for safe places to walk and bike, and to focus new funding on connecting trail and active transportation networks where it will have the biggest impact. Trails, walking and biking should remain broadly eligible across existing and any new transportation programs.

The White House draft funding proposal gives a glimpse into the plan they will fully present in the coming weeks or months. Next week, RTC will be watching and covering the State of the Union address closely for more details on infrastructure. We will be tweeting to create an enduring testimony in support of the health, economic, mobility and other benefits of active transportation that cannot be left out of any infrastructure funding bill.

Help show your support for trails by watching our coverage on Twitter @railstotrails and #TrailsTransformUS.

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