The State of Funding for Trails, Walking and Biking: A Mixed Bag

Posted 09/13/18 by Leeann Sinpatanasakul in Policy, America's Trails

The Chief Ladiga Trail in Alabama travels along and over Terrapin Creek. | Photo by Tom Dulaney

 Raise your hand if you know how communities pay to build trails.

The reality is that most of us who love and use trails aren’t always clear on where the funding comes from to pay for these invaluable assets!

The short answer: While trail funding is generated from a variety of sources, the federal Transportation Alternatives Set-Aside is the largest dedicated source of funding for trails, walking and biking in the country. For more than 25 years, this program has transformed the landscape of the nation, making more than $10 billion available to states for active transportation projects and creating the financial opportunity for states to build safe places to walk and bike.

Since the program’s inception in 1991, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has been monitoring how these funds have been invested and the projects that have been built. Each year, the results are published in RTC’s Transportation Alternatives Spending Report. The most recent report was just released, summarizing how states used Transportation Alternatives funding in 2017. 

So, how did states stack up last year for Transportation Alternatives?

Want to know what projects have been built with Transportation Alternatives funds in your state? Search our database!

Spending for Trails, Walking and Biking on the Rise

Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail in Florida | Photo by Britte Lowther
Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail in Florida | Photo by Britte Lowther

Overall, 2017’s analysis brings good news for trails, walking and biking. Nationwide, spending rose to record levels last year, with states obligating … or committing … an average of 99 percent of the funds to building active transportation projects—the highest percentage since fiscal year (FY) 1995! (Note: To get the average of 99 percent, some states committed to spend more than that and some states less; for the states that committed more than 100 percent, they used this year’s funds as well as unused funds from previous years!) What’s more, 97 percent went to projects for trails, walking and biking.

This is a remarkable increase from last year’s obligation rate of 89 percent and average yearly rates of 64 percent for the previous decade. Many states had large accumulated balances from previous years and worked hard to spend those funds this year—showing that they value the funds, or at the very least didn’t want to lose them!

More projects being funded means better connectivity, safer ways to walk and bike, and more opportunities to get outdoors and stay healthy.

The Leaky Bucket

Monon Trail in Indiana | Photo courtesy Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation
Monon Trail in Indiana | Photo courtesy Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation

Despite this good news, there is a larger national problem that has yet to be addressed. While states are obligating new funding at record levels, they are transferring a staggering amount of funds out of the program as well—even as demand for trails continues to grow.

In July 2012, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) made it easier for states to transfer funds out of Transportation Alternatives—a development that continues today under the current FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act legislation. States are taking advantage of the changes in MAP-21, with 21 states having transferred $635 million out of Transportation Alternatives in just five years compared with the $192 million transferred over the previous two decades (1992–2012).

Once funds are transferred out, it becomes difficult to track if they are being spent on active transportation infrastructure or freeways.

To be fair, some states—such as Connecticut, Oregon and Texas—are transferring out funds but still using them to build bicycle or pedestrian facilities, just not through the competitive Transportation Alternatives process. But not all states are doing so, and once funds are transferred out, it becomes difficult to track if they are being spent on active transportation infrastructure or freeways.

What’s more, Federal Highway Administration reports indicate that nearly half the projects that applied for Transportation Alternatives in 2017 (more than 2,500 projects) were left unfunded, creating a difficult dynamic for trails, walking and biking. Funds are being transferred away from the most significant federal program for active transportation at the same time the number of project applications is growing, and thousands of projects aren’t being funded.

Transportation Alternatives represents the single largest federal investment in trails, yet it is among the smallest line items at 1.8 percent—or less than two pennies for every dollar of Federal-aid Highway spending. If this trend continues, the impact could be felt deeply. It could encourage states to further disinvest from the program, leaving unspent money on the table and reducing the likelihood of additional federal funding.

What’s Next for Funding Trail and Active Transportation Networks?

Silver Comet Trail in Georgia | Photo by Alison Schultz
Silver Comet Trail in Georgia | Photo by Alison Schultz

The process of getting Transportation Alternatives dollars from Washington into the states for trails can be long and complex—with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) deciding how to distribute those funds using a complex formula. It’s not always clear to the average trail user how money gets to the state and, once it’s there, what the state chooses to do with it. States actually run a competitive application process—some every two years or even more infrequently—and once construction is about to begin on chosen projects, the Transportation Alternatives funding is “obligated,” or formally committed to build the trail, or walking or biking facility. And while it’s good news that state obligation rates are at record highs overall, there is much need to focus on the greater challenges inherent in the program.

At RTC, we’re encouraged to see states spending these funds on trails at an unprecedented rate! However, we are deeply concerned about the significant amount of funds being transferred out of the program. We continue to work with various state DOTs to improve their program processes so that more funds can be awarded to projects and fewer dollars transferred out. At the same time, we are calling on Congress—as it prepares to craft the next transportation bill—to increase funding for active transportation.

But we can’t do it alone! RTC needs your support to help to educate about the importance of trails, and to push Congress to act when the moment arrives. In the meantime, let us know you want to be involved and publicly show your support by sharing the myriad ways that trails are transforming communities across the country or writing about them to your local paper. A short letter to the editor that mentions your member of Congress by name can have a huge impact!

Together, we’ll keep fighting for the resources needed to connect trails so that people can get where they want to go, however they want to get there. We’re fighting for stronger communities and outdoor mobility choices for all.

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