Breaking: Senate Committee Advances Funding to Trail and Active Transportation Networks

Posted 05/27/21 by Kevin Mills, Patrick Wojahn in Policy

Yesterday, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee unanimously passed the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021, the bipartisan “highway title” of the surface transportation reauthorization.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is excited to report that an amendment advancing our bill—the Connecting America’s Active Transportation System Act (S.684)—passed on an 11-9 roll call vote.

The amended version provides $200 million per year in direct federal competitive grants to support connected trail and active transportation networks within and between communities, seeding the next big step towards a robust active transportation system to serve the country. This bill will accelerate the visionary plans of our valued state and local partners in hundreds of communities to create safe walking and biking routes to daily destinations, as well as advance long-distance connections across state lines—like the Great American Rail-Trail.

We have many steps before the proposal becomes law, but today’s win is a momentous milestone for our movement.

We are extremely grateful for the work of our champions and allies, especially Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) for making this happen, and for all the help of our partners around the country, like you, who have fought by our side to move this critical new program forward.

Other significant progress was made in advancing the trio of dedicated funding bills that RTC has been championing. The EPW bill will increase Transportation Alternatives funding by an estimated 70%, pegging it at 10% of the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program rather than a fixed amount. Importantly, the bill also makes it more difficult for states to transfer those funds out of the program. The bill increases sub-allocation of funding to local entities to 59% and indicates that up to 5% of funding may be spent on administration and technical assistance. There are a few new eligibilities, like EV charging infrastructure. The fate of Recreational Trails Program funding remains pending as the Federal Highway Administration’s recreational fuel tax study has not yet been released.

Initiatives Benefiting Trails and Active Transportation

In addition to these dedicated funding programs targeted at trails, biking and walking, the bill includes several other initiatives that could benefit active transportation.

These programs suggest that the committee recognizes the value of infrastructure that connects people to daily destinations through a variety of modes. Walking and biking infrastructure are eligible but must compete with other modes.

These include:

  1. The rural surface transportation grant program—provides $300-500 million annually for grants for rural transportation infrastructure that will increase connectivity and improve safety and quality of life. This can include rural infrastructure for biking and walking.
  2. The reconnecting communities pilot program—provides approximately $100 million annually for planning and construction grants to remove barriers to connectivity, such as limited-access highways, with a preference for economically disadvantaged communities.
  3. The Transportation Access Pilot program—requires USDOT to provide additional data to selected communities to measure level of access to daily destinations, including by biking and walking.

A new carbon reduction program will also provide new funding opportunities for active transportation by making planning, design and construction of on-road and off-road trail facilities eligible for inclusion as part of a state carbon reduction strategy that receives federal funding. The bill requires that states develop carbon reduction strategies within two years after the bill is enacted.

The bill also changes policies to help make communities safer for walking and biking, including:

  1. Improvements to the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP), which provides funding to states to improve safety on road infrastructure, including tying the funding to a requirement that states conduct safety assessments for vulnerable road users and allowing funds to be spent on Safe Systems approaches that design infrastructure to be safe. Increasing separation of pedestrians and bicyclists from cars is among the measures listed.
  2. A requirement that states spend at least 15 percent of their HSIP funds on safety for vulnerable road users if their fatalities are 15 percent or greater of the total traffic-related fatalities in the state.
  3. A requirement that the US Department of Transportation Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which governs design standards for safety features on roadways, be updated every three years and focus on protecting vulnerable road users.

Please note that the Senate Commerce Committee, which has yet to develop its transportation proposal, has jurisdiction over other safety policies, such as Complete Streets.

Other policies of note:

  1. Safe Routes to School is extended through high school.
  2. Shared micro-mobility becomes eligible for funding in the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program and other bicycle and pedestrian funding sources.
  3. The e-bike classification system widely adopted in states is codified in federal law.
  4. A sense of Congress that DOT should coordinate efforts to prevent trespasser deaths along railroad rights of way and crossings; a measure with implications for rail-with-trail projects.
  5. RTC will further research and engage with USDOT regarding the expected impact of certain decidedly wonky policy changes relating to categorical exclusions, section 4(f) reviews and TIFIA.

This analysis provides details regarding specific provisions of the bill addressing active transportation. Partner organizations, such as Transportation for America and the National Association of City Transportation Officials, are providing broader perspectives regarding the impact of the bill on driving, transit and urban development. We acknowledge the significance of those broader conversations to the walkability, bikeability and quality of life of American communities.

What’s next for the bill?

The bill that passed this week is only one of four parts in the overall surface transportation bill. Three other Senate committees must pass additional pieces of the transportation reauthorization. The Senate hopes to push a bill to a floor vote by the end of June but, in any case, is under pressure to pass the reauthorization by the end of September. The Biden administration is also pursuing additional pieces of its overall infrastructure package, the American Jobs Plan, which could present additional opportunities to ensure funding and support for trails and active transportation.

The Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021 includes major advances for walking, biking and trails. Although we can celebrate this victory, we all still have our work cut out for us to ensure that the final transportation reauthorization helps to address the high demand for strategically focused investment in safe and connected infrastructure for trails and active transportation.

We appreciate your partnership and will keep you informed as Congress and the Biden administration continue their work.

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