This year, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s (RTC’s) state policy arm focused on strategies aimed at building financial support for trails, walking and bicycling over the long term, including the creation of advocacy infrastructure that should pay dividends for active transportation for years to come.
Most states’ legislative sessions wrapped up by summer—and we made great progress in some regions of the country, while we are actively monitoring others for progress and opportunities. Here’s a brief snapshot of where we are right now.
Ensuring Trails Have a Seat at the Table in State Legislatures
In 2017, RTC spearheaded the creation of the country’s first Legislative Trails Caucus in Ohio in conjunction with the OhioNetwork and the Ohio Trails Partnership, among others. The bipartisan model was designed to tap the collective energy of like-minded legislators who support trails—and who are of course critical to establishing policies and funding for trails to accelerate their development. Essentially, the model ensures that trails have a seat at the table with decision-makers.
The Ohio Caucus—which now boasts over 35% of the membership of the entire Ohio Legislature (both House and Senate, with a good balance of Republicans and Democrats, including bipartisan co-chairs)—is raising the profile of trails in the Buckeye State and serving as a powerful voice for trails among policymakers. RTC is now working to replicate the caucus model elsewhere. The Wisconsin Trails Caucus was launched last year, and state legislators have committed to supporting the Route of the Badger, an RTC TrailNation™ project that will one day connect seven counties via 700 miles of trails. Straight on the heels of this success, we are actively exploring and promoting the caucus concept in Indiana, Minnesota, West Virginia and several other states.
Just recently, RTC facilitated a similar “working group” of legislators and staffers who support trails in New York State, and we participated in the launch of the “Trails Across New York” campaign to support the developing 750-mile Empire State Trail network. The trail network comprises trails that already help generated hundreds of millions of dollars for communities, and connecting these vital assets will serve as an additional huge boost to outdoor tourism in the state.
Multiyear Strategy for Trail Development: Statewide Trail Plans
Another area of focus high on RTC’s radar: statewide trail plans—which are multiyear strategies for accelerating trail development. Currently, some states do not have a statewide trails plan, while others have plans that are outdated or exist merely as an inventory of existing trails—not as strategic documents that consider connectivity and trail project priorities. By updating statewide trails plans, agencies—including departments of transportation, natural resources and parks—can work together to build trail networks, and legislators can see how funding would impact specific projects in their districts.
Our Midwest office has played a key role in implementing Ohio’s recently completed statewide trails plan, the Ohio Trails Vision, which includes more than 40 findings and recommendations to direct the administration and legislature in effective policy and funding decision-making that will support trail development and maintenance. The New York legislature also recently passed a statewide trail plan bill—it’s awaiting the governor’s signature—that would build off of the cross-state Empire State Trail to create a robust state network of trails.
Other Breakthroughs for Trail Network Development
The state policy program continues to closely monitor the landscape from coast to coast for funding opportunities and threats. This year, RTC supported a bill in Texas, now headed to the ballot as Proposition 5, to ensure that an existing sporting-goods sales tax that was created for parks actually goes to state and local parks—and that trails are eligible for some of that funding. If Proposition 5 passes in Texas this November, it will establish a more stable, dedicated and increased source of funding for parks and trails, and that means potentially more support for transformative trail networks in development like the 428-mile Caracara Trails network, which will deliver major health and tourism benefits to communities throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Also this spring, Minnesota legislators allocated $5 million from federal surface transportation dollars to fund the North Star State’s active transportation program and appropriated over $80 million for trail projects. And, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers signed a bill that allocated $75 million to support local governments in fixing transportation infrastructure, which includes trails and other pedestrian and bicycle accommodations. Meanwhile, when the Rhode Island Department of Transportation proposed moving millions of dollars in funding for walking and bicycling projects over to road and bridge projects, RTC jumped into action and supported a local coalition that helped halt that plan. Unfortunately, a similar proposal appears close to passing, despite significant grassroots opposition from biking and walking advocates. RTC continues to monitor the situation with local partners.
RTC will continue to look for funding opportunities during the rest of 2019 as well as next year’s state legislative sessions, while laying the groundwork for long-term sources of support for trails in statehouses across America.
Stay tuned! Check back later this year for updates, as most legislatures will resume activity after the New Year.
08/12/19 by Ryan Chao