A Senate Committee Just Approved a Transportation Bill for America—Here’s What It Means for Trails

Posted 07/30/19 by Kevin Mills in Policy

United States Capitol during the national cherry blossom festival in Washington, D.C.

We’re off to the races, folks!

Today, after months of discussion, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW Committee) passed a bipartisan bill to reauthorize a major part of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act—the main federal law currently governing funding of America’s surface transportation programs, including the part covering trails, and pedestrian and bicycle and infrastructure. The new bill, known as America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019, or ATIA, has bipartisan support and is making progress more than a year before the FAST Act expires. This gives us optimism at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) that Congress will be able to come together to invest in a balanced transportation system.

The FAST Act, passed in December 2015, expires in September 2020.

However, there is still work to be done. With America’s growing demand for safe walkable and bikeable places, and the need for investments that protect our climate and create vital communities, we are looking to Congress to pass a transformative bill that meets America’s diverse—and evolving—transportation needs.

The FAST Act, passed in December 2015, expires in September 2020, and Congress must pass a new bill to ensure that federal funds continue to support our transportation networks. While ATIA is a significant step forward, many questions still need to be answered—including how it will be paid for—and both the Senate and the House will continue to debate these ideas in the months to come. In the meantime, RTC will be collaborating with partners to craft a more transformative bill.

Trails Transform America Campaign

RTC has a message for Congress: Trail networks are as fundamental to America’s transportation systems as roads and rail lines and deserve robust federal investment.

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The past decades have seen major changes in the way we think about transportation, with changes in mobility options and the way people view the built environment calling for new ideas. While ATIA shows that the committee recognizes some of the value of walking and bicycling infrastructure, it largely maintains the status quo and falls short of including transformational policy ideas necessary at this critical juncture—such as RTC’s Networks and Spines proposal, which would provide dedicated funds to fill critical gaps between existing trails, sidewalks and bikeways within communities, along with trails connecting between communities and states. Connecting these active transportation “networks” and “spine” trails are key to improving mobility in this era when many people depend on active travel to get around and maintain their health.

For the first time, the bill proposes to dedicate federal transportation funding to address the transportation-related causes of climate change.

Forward Motion: Active Transportation, Safety and Climate

Among the benefits in ATIA is the improvement of existing programs that have historically provided funding for trails and active transportation, and the provision of potentially significant new investments that would enhance these programs and expand the benefits they bring to communities. It also would recognize important concepts related to walking and bicycling connectivity and safety. Specifically, the bill would:

  • Protect Active Transportation Funding: The bill protects the existing core programs dedicated to trails, bicycling and walking, including increasing levels of funding allocated to Transportation Alternatives (TA)—the largest program benefiting trails, walking and bicycling in the country. These increases would restore funding eliminated by MAP-21 in 2012, and provide a marginal increase. While this would allow for new dedicated investment in trails and active transportation, it unfortunately still leaves TA as a leaky bucket, allowing states and MPOs to transfer and repurpose funds for other uses.
  • Elevate Safety: A new program has been proposed that includes funds allocated by a formula across all 50 states, as well as competitive grants to protect vulnerable road users, defined as non-motorists. Totaling $2.5 billion over 5 years, the funds will go to states and urban areas to create plans and benchmarks for reducing fatalities and significant injuries for pedestrians and bicyclists, ultimately making communities safer for people traveling on foot and by bike.
  • Begin to Address Climate: For the first time, the bill proposes to dedicate federal transportation funding to address the transportation-related causes of climate change. ATIA would provide $3 billion over 5 years to support transportation measures that reduce carbon emissions—including the development of facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists such as trails. The bill also includes nearly $5 billion in formula funds and competitive grants to help states and local communities make their infrastructure more resilient to, and help mitigate, the effects of climate change.
  • Call Some Attention to the Need for Active Transportation Networks: ATIA creates two initiatives that begin to acknowledge the central importance of connected networks for walking and bicycling. A new Complete Streets policy would require states and metropolitan planning organizations to dedicate 2.5% of their planning and research funds to develop connected active-transportation networks and improve the safety of walkers and bicyclists. The bill would also create a pilot program to provide data on accessibility of transportation networks to important destinations such as jobs and health care by multiple transportation modes, including walking and bicycling.

So What’s Missing in the Bill?

Although these changes would help, walking and bicycling would still stay in the margins, making up about 2% of the federal transportation budget, even while they account for more than 11% of the trips. More and more people are turning to active transportation—some in response to traffic congestion, others for convenience—to reduce their carbon footprint or to build more physical activity into their lives. New mobility technologies such as e-scooters and e-bikes will lead even more people to seek safe infrastructure to get to the places they want and need to go.

ATIA maintains the status quo based on a formula that encourages states to overwhelmingly prioritize building roads and highways.

And while the new programs to address pedestrian and bicycling fatalities and climate emissions are important, those programs also would comprise just 2 percent of the overall transportation budget. When we’re talking about spending $287 billion on infrastructure investments, a tiny shift in the relative balance among the travel modes can make all the difference, especially if communities use those investments strategically to connect walking and bicycling infrastructure to create networks that facilitate much broader use.

ATIA, on the other hand, largely maintains the status quocontinuing to allocate more than 90 percent of federal transportation funds based on a formula that encourages states to overwhelmingly prioritize building roads and highways. ATIA is still missing what it would need to truly address the 21st-century transportation needs of all Americans, which are rapidly shifting.

Most critically, the bill misses the opportunity to provide much-needed strategic investments that would connect active transportation networks and spines across communities and entire regions—enabling people to safely and conveniently walk and bike to get to where they need to go, and generate new economic development opportunities across rural, suburban and urban communities. Only with such focus on leveraging existing assets and accelerating connectivity, just as we do for roads and rails, will America realize the transformative benefits of a nationwide network of trails and other safe active-transportation facilities.

We look forward to working with members of both parties and chambers of Congress to ensure that these initiatives are included in future versions of the surface transportation funding bill.

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