New Transportation Bill Could Open Up More Money for Trails Nationwide

Posted 04/12/19 by Kevin Mills in Policy

Last month, we reported on the TrailBlog that the House of Representatives had been discussing what the federal government can do to meet America’s 21st-century transportation needs, and active transportation—meaning trails, walking and biking—was included in the hearing.​

Not to be outdone, the Senate is also considering the next big transportation bill—and they heard about the need to build trails and active transportation infrastructure loud and clear. Two recent developments are inching proposals for more and better trail funding closer to reality: First, Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) recently supported RTC’s request to fund trail networks and spines; and second, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) introduced a bill on Tuesday (S. 1098) to improve the current federal program for active transportation.

What will these proposals mean for trails? Here is RTC’s take on these recent developments.

Transportation Alternatives Enhancements Bill (S. 1098) Would Help Deliver More Trail Projects Nationally

Transportation Alternatives (TA) is the largest single source of dedicated funding for trails, walking and biking in America. For nearly three decades, this program has funded thousands of trails across the country. However, cuts and changes earlier this decade hurt the program by 1) siphoning off funds for other purposes not related to active transportation; and 2) imposing new programmatic requirements that impeded the ability of communities to access the funds.

S.1098 would help restore the integrity of TA, providing easier access to funds for the trails that people want and need. Here’s a quick rundown.

  • The bill grows walking and biking funding when highway funding grows.

While other federal programs have received additional investment in the past two years, TA has not, and it is not assured proportional increases in the future. S. 1098 would re-establish funding for TA as a proportion of transportation investment—allowing it to receive its fair share when new funding becomes available.

  • It provides more local control over funding.

The bill would allocate more TA funds for metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) for larger urban areas to distribute—putting more dollars in the hands of local agencies who know their communities best. In addition, this bill provides the flexibility for states to allocate all their funding by population through regional and local entities.

In states that elect to award funding themselves, both regional MPOs for populations less than 200,000 people and nonprofits would be eligible to apply for funds. This is especially important for projects where nonprofits often carry out programs and events that get more students to walk or bike to school.

  • It would provide technical assistance so projects could be completed quicker.

Like all federal programs, TA is subject to federal regulations, which help provide fair working conditions and protect the environment but can also be a challenge for small communities with less staff. Meeting these requirements can delay projects for years, driving up costs or even causing federal funds to expire.

A provision in the bill allows a state to use up to 5% of their TA funds to hire or contract employees to provide technical assistance for the expressed purpose of reducing the time it takes to get communities ready to spend the funds. While it’s important to note states may not need the full 5%—in some states, this comes to more than $1 million for one employee—on balance, this provision will help local communities finally build the trails, sidewalks and bike lanes they desire!

  • There is more flexibility for matching requirements.

Federal funding is usually only allowed to cover 80% of project costs and thus requires non-federal “matching” funds. The bill allows any project to receive up to 100% of federal funds—as long as the total matching ratio for all TA projects awarded across the state remains 80:20. This would greatly help small towns—say, a town of 5,000—where finding local funds can be a struggle. Other projects would need to contribute more than a 20% match to even out the ratio, but this is less difficult for large cities to cover.

In addition, the bill also allows 100% of costs to be covered by federal funds for eligible safety projects meeting certain criteria, giving relief to communities with safety needs.

Download the full version of the bill here.

We greatly support and applaud this initiative by Sens. Cardin and Wicker to restore and improve the effectiveness of the existing program for trails, walking and biking.

However, there are still significant loopholes allowing billions of dollars to be diverted from TA, and more will need to be done to plug this leaky bucket. We will continue to monitor the progress of this program in Congress, so check back for updates.

Good News for Trail Networks and Spines

Photo courtesy Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department
Photo courtesy Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department

Meanwhile, both the Senate and House are taking steps to begin writing the next big transportation legislation, as current legislation will expire toward the end of 2020. This is happening as communities across the United States are seeking more mobility options—including comprehensive trail networks that provide further connections to other communities, and beyond.

At RTC, we envision a world where everybody can reach their destination safely by walking or bicycling if they choose. That’s why we’ve proposed legislation to fund larger projects that connect networks and spines and result in safe routes for everyone.

Throughout the past month, Senate staff tasked with writing the bill have been soliciting ideas from other senators and outside stakeholders. RTC was invited to share our networks and spines proposal with these staff and also took the opportunity to meet several key Senators.

We are pleased to share that two senators—Sens. Merkley (D-Ore.) and Van Hollen (D-Md.)—adopted our networks and spines legislation and included it in their requests. We thank them for showing support for the proposal—which seeks to transform America’s walking and biking infrastructure and result in safe mobility options for every community.

What’s Next for Both Trail Proposals?

United States Senate podium

The bill released Tuesday by Sens. Cardin and Wicker face a long road ahead to passage; however, with broad support, it is more likely that the bill language will be included in the next transportation legislation. At the same time, we will be meeting with other members of Congress to find wide, bipartisan support for networks and spines.

We hope to see a comprehensive bill released this year and will be watching closely for inclusion of our networks and spines proposal, and for investment and improvements to Transportation Alternatives. If a bill is not passed this year or next, we may see an extension of current law into 2021. Regardless of when legislation passes, we are hopeful that it will include funding to connect existing walking and biking infrastructure for the creation of safe, connected active transportation networks across the country.

These two recent developments are not the end—but the beginning—of a national effort to build safe, healthy mobility options for everyone, everywhere.


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