There’s been a flurry of activity in the past couple months as Congress works to craft the next major federal transportation bill, which will guide how decisions are made about transportation spending—including funding for trails, walking and biking—for years to come.
The clock is ticking on the current bill, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which expires in September. Last year, a bipartisan bill came out of one Senate committee, and in late January, House Democrats released their Moving Forward Framework, with a goal to prioritize infrastructure investment that addresses some of the nation’s biggest challenges—from bicycle and pedestrian safety, to traffic congestion and carbon pollution. What it all boils down to is an incredible opportunity for Congress to put forth a transformative policy creating a new era for trails and active transportation—one that meets growing demand, stems rising fatalities, and contributes to solving serious health and environmental challenges facing the nation.
This year, RTC has been working with members of Congress to introduce the missing pieces of an ambitious funding package comprising four bills that collectively call for $2 billion/year for programs dedicated to advancing a nationwide network of trails, walkways and bikeways that would result in a huge return on investment in the next couple decades.
“These are not big asks—they are reasonable, have a huge ROI, build community in ways that are unique. This is easy for many of us to support.” @repblumenauer kicks off #bikecaucus briefing with a call for support of trails, walking and biking in transportation reauthorization. pic.twitter.com/t19NiEdM2c— Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (@railstotrails) March 4, 2020
Here’s a closer look at how this quartet of bills—including the Connecting America’s Active Transportation System Act, the Transportation Alternatives Enhancements Act, the RTP Full Funding Act of 2020 and the Active Transportation for Public Lands Act—could game-change our active transportation system.
A Visionary Funding Package
$500 Million for Active Transportation Network Connectivity
The Connecting America’s Active Transportation System Act (H.R.5696/S-3391) is a major innovation in trail and active transportation policy, specifically providing $500 million a year for communities to plan, design and construct connected trail and active transportation networks that enable Americans to safely get to everyday destinations—such as work, school or the grocery store—by foot, bike or wheelchair. The bill also places an emphasis on “spines,” or longer trail corridors that connect communities and states, to bring investment to rural areas and small towns, and allow greater mobility on a regional and national level.
Ultimately, this groundbreaking bill would place a much-needed investment focus on connecting America’s 36,000+ miles of multiuse trails with sidewalks and bikeways to create seamless active transportation networks within communities, and with active transportation spines between them.
As trail gaps are closed, trail use increases by as much as 80% depending on the significance of the gap closure, according a 2019 report by RTC, and substantial investment in active transportation networks could lead to an annual reduction of 54 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions around the country, while significantly boosting economic development.
Growing the Largest Federal Program for Trails and Active Transportation
The Transportation Alternatives Enhancements Act (H.R. 5231) focuses on growing Transportation Alternatives (TA), which, along with the Recreational Trails Program (RTP), has been a legacy and lifeblood program of the trail movement since its inception in 1991. The largest source of federal funding for trails and active transportation for decades, TA alone has provided more than $15 billion for over 36,000 projects, including for trails and walking and bicycling infrastructure, and has resulted in innumerable health, economic, transportation, environmental and social benefits for millions of people.
The new bill not only grows TA, but also curbs transfers of money from the program to other non-active-transportation uses—ensuring meaningful opportunities to develop safe walking and bicycling infrastructure through this program in every state.
Tripling Federal Trail Maintenance Funding for America’s Trails
Trail maintenance is, and continues to be, a growing concern for communities and trail systems. The RTP Full Funding Act of 2020 (H.R. 5797) aims to raise funding for the Recreational Trails Program (RTP), the only federal program in existence that supports trail maintenance. Created in 1991 with broad bipartisan support from Congress, RTP is particularly impactful in rural areas that rely on scenic trails for jobs and tourism-based economic development opportunities.
While RTP is uniquely self-supported, drawing its funding entirely from a fuel tax on nonhighway recreational vehicles—including snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, off-highway motorcycles, etc.—the program currently receives $85 million per year based on a decade-old evaluation by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) of gas-taxes paid. The bill calls for FHWA to implement and periodically update a new and long-overdue estimate of annual gas-taxes paid, and would ensure that 100% of the fees generated are credited back to the RTP program.
Funding Active Transportation Projects on Public Lands
Through the Active Transportation for Public Lands Act (H.R. 5642), 5% of the Federal Lands Transportation Program and the Federal Lands Access Program dollars would go to the construction, planning, design, etc., of trails and other walking and bicycling facilities.
To state it simply—this would mean improved access and mobility for pedestrians, bicyclists and persons with disabilities seeking to access points of interest in national parks, wildlife refuges, forests, conservation areas and historical sites. The bill would also help public land managers around the United States achieve their conservation goals.
Show Congress Your Support
Investments in active transportation have the potential to deliver powerful economic, health and environmental benefits for every community. In fact, RTC’s most recent study shows that active transportation in America generates a return on investment of $34 billion annually, which could grow to $138.5 billion over time with passage of these bills.
The trail-funding package outlined above would provide critical support for the development of a modern-day active transportation system, while offering impactful strategies to achieve the ambitious goals laid out by Congressional leaders.
By adopting this visionary approach, our country could make leaps and bounds in transforming America with safe, connected trail and active transportation networks, RTC is urging everyone to communicate to Congress the importance of supporting the funding package.