Dispatch from the American Trails Symposium: “Trails are in the crosshairs”
By Carolyn S on November 17, 2010
When Bob Searns left the White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors this past April, he was all charged up. The chair of American Trails was excited about the high-level discussion about “a 21st century strategy” to conserve and celebrate our nation’s natural heritage. He was amped that the Obama administration saw critical value in trails and green space.
Then, just a few blocks from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, still riding the conference high, he ran smack into a Tea Party rally.
Many in the audience chuckled at the irony when Searns told that story at the American Trails National Symposium yesterday. But the anecdote illustrated a key point for the hundreds of trail advocates, engineering professionals and government officials meeting in Chattanooga this week.
“There’s a strong sentiment for less government and a real concern about the deficit,” Searns said. “We’re looking at a very real challenge and I think we need to figure out ways to make the case to preserve and provide this kind of infrastructure.”
That challenge was the central thrust of the conference’s General Session. Because of the political shift in the midterm election, federal programs that fund and promote trails are under threat. Already, a number of incoming lawmakers and soon-to-be power brokers have publicly labeled trails and greenways as wasteful spending or expendable beautification projects. “Make no mistake about it,” Marianne Fowler warned. “Trails are in the crosshairs.”
Fowler, the Senior Vice President for Federal Relations at the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, knows what she’s talking about. She’s been in the movement since 1988 and gave us all a little history lesson on the evolution of critical federal funding. The passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act in 1991, she said, was a turning point. That bill birthed two programs that have funded thousands of trail projects across the nation — the Recreational Trails Program and Transportation Enhancements.
“We had this blooming of available funds and the movement met the money,” Fowler said. “We’ve been on a roll ever since.”
The new Congress, though, could throw up a roadblock. To give us a preview of the new landscape and rumblings about the next transportation bill, Eric Beightel took the podium.
Beightel, an Environmental Protection Specialist at the U.S. Department of Transportation, said his agency understands the efficacy of trails and other bicycle and pedestrian projects. By now, we all know and love Secretary Ray LaHood’s new policy that puts biking and walking on equal footing with motorized transportation. We know the DOT has embraced livability and walkable communities as a central goal of the transportation system, not a nebulous fringe concept concocted by treehuggers. Beightel highlighted the ways trails enhance our quality of life, but also pointed to a key selling point for fiscal conservatives. “The cheapest form of transportation is a pair of sneakers,” Beightel said. “The second is a bike.”
And the DOT has numbers to prove it. Beightel would know; he’s the leader of the TIGER Grant evaluation team. “And TIGER revealed a promising trend,” he said.
The two rounds of funding gave millions to traditional road projects, but the evaluation team looked at the applications through the lens of livability, sustainability and cost effectiveness. Bike-ped projects and trail systems were big winners in all three criteria, Beightel said. It’s no surprise that trail projects make cities more livable and projects that get people out of their cars are more sustainable. But the key point advocates and officials need to drive home is that trails and bike-ped projects are incredibly cost effective.
Each project had to include a cost-benefit analysis in its application. Because trails are relatively cheap to build, Beightel said, those projects provided serious bang for the taxpayer buck. “The benefits almost always outweigh the cost,” he said. “That’s an argument that can help in Congress.”
The DOT, he said, will try to carry that emphasis on livability, sustainability and cost-effectiveness into the next federal transportation bill. But there are red flags already. For instance: “There is some concern that Congress may strike out TIGER,” Beightel said.
Programs like Recreational Trails and Transportation Enhancements — which dedicate tens of millions of dollars for trails and bike-ped projects — could be reconfigured, he added. “Some of those programs could be consolidated,” Beightel said. “CMAQ [Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program] could be consolidated with Recreational Trails and Transportation Enhancement to be one bundle of money… We’re introducing that as a possibility so people can be prepared to lobby their state DOTs and members of congress so they recognize the importance of these programs.”
Fowler, for one, said she’s concerned about possible program consolidation. She’s concerned that trails get caught up in political gamesmanship, even though the health, economic and environmental benefits are clear. “Staff members of the incoming majority have publicly said that one of the first things they want to eliminate in transportation funding is Transportation Enhancements and trail funding,” Fowler said. “That’s us, guys. Let’s get real here. We’ve got a fight on our hands and we need to get prepared for that fight.”
Plenty of leaders in Washington — like Ray Lahood — are proponents and defenders of trails and bike-ped projects, she added. But they’ll need a grassroots uprising to defend our interests in the next transportation bill. “We’ve got good friends everywhere, but we have to do our part, too,” she said. And we started that effort right there in the banquet hall. Everyone was already sitting at a table bearing their state name and for the final half-hour of the General Session we all learned about our new “Congressional Buddies.” We drafted resolutions asking those members of Congress to support trails.
But that was just the beginning — we need your help, too. With the help of RTC and other national partners, we’ll make sure you have useful templates to communicate the importance of bike-ped funding programs to your members of Congress, too. Stay tuned.
Tags: u.s department of transportation, transportation enhancement, tiger, recreational trails program, rails-to-trails conservancy, federal funding, american trails national syposium, american trails
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