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America’s Trails

Record-Breaking Investments in California’s Trails Amid Major Demand

By: Laura Cohen, Heather Irish
November 14, 2022

Rail Arts District along the Napa Valley Vine Trail in California | Photo courtesy Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition
Rail Arts District along the Napa Valley Vine Trail in California | Photo courtesy Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition

The Bay Area Trails Collaborative is working to create a world-class 2,600-miles-plus regional trail network across nine counties in the Bay Area, which will ultimately serve 7 million people.

The start of 2022 brought a significant opportunity for California trails and ended in a historic victory—as the state announced a $1 billion+ investment for trails and active transportation for fiscal year 2023. This record-level funding pot, made possible with joint advocacy by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) and many partners in California’s active transportation community, could have an enormous impact on building out California’s trails and active transportation networks, including the 2,600-miles-plus Bay Area regional trail network.

Here’s a quick recap on this epic win and what it means for trails and active transportation.

Surplus Meets Opportunity

Bayshore Bikeway | Photo by Laura Stark
Bayshore Bikeway | Photo by Laura Stark

In January, Gov. Newsom released his 2023 proposal to dedicate half a billion dollars to trails and active transportation in California. While this was an exciting—and important—step toward supporting trail infrastructure, it did not come close to matching the steadily increasing demand for trail funding.

As the legislature reviewed the budget proposal, RTC, the Bay Area Trails Collaborative and trail advocates across the state were united under one goal—to secure more money for trails in the 2023 state budget. Together, we rallied the trails and active transportation community and built support among top leaders by highlighting the return on investment for trails, biking and walking.  

Thanks to these efforts, the initial half-billion proposal was more than doubled to $1.1 billion, providing a huge boost for two major sources of trail funding in California. This includes: the Active Transportation Program (ATP), the largest source of trail, bike and pedestrian funding in the state, whose total pot for 2023 programming now comes in at $1.7 billion; and the chronically underfunded Recreational Trails and Greenways Program, which received a one-time, $35 million investment for projects in 2023.

Related: Commuting Across and Exploring the Bay Area Will Become More Accessible to Millions of Residents Via 2,604 Miles of Connected Trails

El Dorado Trail in California | Photo courtesy Friends of El Dorado Trail
El Dorado Trail in California | Photo courtesy Friends of El Dorado Trail

“Increased access to our natural spaces is more important than ever. These multi-benefit projects not only enhance recreational opportunities but increase access, which can improve physical and mental health.”

—Wade Crowfoot, California Secretary for Natural Resources (2020 Recreational Trails and Greenways grant announcement)

Nearly all the 2023 ATP funding—currently in Cycle 6—will go toward projects in underserved communities, ensuring more people have safe access to school, work, transit, parks and recreation. And demand is soaring—with both the number of applications and size of projects increasing.

As of November 2022, 432 applicants had requested a combined $3.1 billion in funding—with 17% of applicants asking for more than $10 million, and one request totaling $67.6 million, according to the California Transportation Commission (CTC), which—along with Caltrans—manages ATP. These numbers serve to demonstrate how much communities are demanding safe walking, biking and trail access in their neighborhoods.

RELATED: California Invests Big in Trails, Demonstrates Growing Statewide Demand for Walking and Biking Infrastructure

Transformative Projects for Walking and Bicycling in California

East Span of San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in California | Photo by Melinda Young Stewart | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
East Span of San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in California | Photo by Melinda Young Stewart | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

CTC is encouraging communities to think big and develop transformative projects—locally and regionally—that elevate biking and walking opportunities for as many people as possible.

One ambitious trail project competing in this record-level ATP funding round is the West Oakland Link of the Bay Bridge Skyway—a priority project of the developing, 2,600-miles-plus Bay Area regional trail network spearheaded by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and the Bay Area Trails Collaborative. If the West Oakland Link application is successful, it will create a seamless walking and bicycling connection between West Oakland and the Bay Bridge east span, with a long-term goal of completing a safe active-transportation option between East Bay and San Francisco for millions of people each year.

The completed West Oakland Link would help serve as a regional connector for a large variety of destinations within a half-mile of the planned trail segment—including seven underserved communities, 66 acres of parks and open space, multiple employment hubs supporting an estimated 2,300 jobs, and three schools.

This project and the hundreds of others in the ATP Cycle 6 applicant pool await funding decisions by the CTC, which will be made in December 2022 (for the statewide share of the funds) and in spring 2023 (for the regional funds). 

Demand for Trail Funding Continues

San Francisco Bay Trail | Photo by Cindy Barks
San Francisco Bay Trail | Photo by Cindy Barks

While this momentous achievement for the state’s trail community is great news, demand for safe places to walk and bike is high, and a vast majority of projects will go unfunded. In 2020, during the last call for the Recreational Trails and Greenways Program, applicants requested more than $400 million to build and maintain trails from a pool of only $27 million available, and current ATP funding requests still total three times that of the $1 billion+ dedicated to Cycle 6 in 2023.

To ensure that all communities in California have equitable, safe access to trails—more funding needs to be made available. RTC and partners continue to monitor potential opportunities and advocate for funding at the state and federal levels to help build out California’s state trail and active transportation systems.

ATP Cycle 6 funding decisions are expected in December 2022 and in June 2023. Check back on the TrailBlog for updates.

Opportunities to Accelerate Trail Development Statewide

Funding more trail projects would be a wise investment in California’s infrastructure. Currently, America’s trail economy generates more than $34.1 billion annually and could grow to more than $138.5 billion each year as the connectivity of trails and active transportation routes improves, according to a 2019 study “Active Transportation Transforms America.” Based on this study, it is estimated that California’s trails could generate as much as $6.62 billion each year for the state economy.

California has access to an influx of federal dollars through the Transportation Alternatives Set-Aside Program to develop, complete and maintain trail projects. California took advantage of this once-in-a-generation funding opportunity that authorized nearly 70% more federal money (an average of $1.44 billion yearly) to states. This federal opportunity will be available each year for California trail projects, creating a chance for the state to accelerate and help meet the growing demand for safe walking and bicycling infrastructure and trails.

RELATED: Top 10 Trails in California

RELATED: Richmond’s Roots: The Richmond Greenway

Laura Cohen | Photo courtesy Laura Cohen
Laura Cohen

Laura Cohen is the director for RTC's Western Regional Office. She frequently speaks about active-transportation policy and funding issues and has co-authored numerous RTC reports, including the 2009 California Rails-with-Trails Survey.

Heather Irish | Photo by Joe LaCroix
Heather Irish

Heather was formerly RTC’s communications director. She often writes about the TrailNationTM initiative, a portfolio of model trail networks across the country designed to prove what is possible when you equitably connect people and places by trail.

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