Investing in the transportation America needs
© Courtesy Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Last night, the president spoke again of his plans to inspire more than $1 trillion in infrastructure spending.

At a glance, the rhetoric all along has felt promising. A shot in the arm for communities in dire need of infrastructure upgrades—everything from repairs to our decaying roads and highways to new investments in water systems and broadband.

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It’s obvious that our country needs these things. But, we shouldn’t just follow along. We need to debate how priorities are set and funding is generated.

So far, the White House has prioritized three types of infrastructure projects. A focus on encouraging investment in rural projects has been consistent. Projects that will deliver transformative economic and social impact were initially the iconic leading edge, though the share of resources committed to such projects appears to have shrunk considerably. Half of the federal appropriation now seems committed to trying to leverage unprecedented state, local and private investments. It looks like funding leverage will be the driving force at the expense of meaningful social and economic impact. A troubling turn.

Regardless of where the administration’s infrastructure funding proposal lands, one thing is certain—none of the proposed programs explicitly address trails and active transportation networks. The silence is deafening. When compared to more traditional transportation projects like roads and highways, trails and active transportation networks deliver superior outcomes across priority measures being set by the White House.

At Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and in the thousands of communities where trails have taken root, we have seen the power of trail, walking and biking infrastructure to deliver incredible real-world outcomes.

Trails provide superior economic and social benefits—from jobs to increased tax revenues, affordable mobility, health and environmental impact. For example, studies in 2012 and 2013 of the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania and Maryland found that the trail had an estimated direct economic impact of $50 million each year for local communities along the route. The developing 225-mile Miami LOOP could result in up to $1.8 billion in estimated user spending and, as a result, $125 million in state sales-tax revenues over 20 years. In San Diego, it’s estimated that the county’s regional bike plan could enhance traffic flow by reducing automobile trips by 189,035 per weekday.

What’s more, federal investment in trail and active transportation networks leverages substantial funding commitments from others. State and local governments put skin in the game because they value the social and economic benefits that active transportation brings to their regions. And on occasion, when the dynamics are right, the private sector will invest as well.

The transformative benefits that trail and active transportation projects bring to America stack up well against the measures the White House has put forth to decide how infrastructure dollars will be invested. We’ve been anticipating the details of the president’s infrastructure plan to see how new investment could advance this vital infrastructure. To get there, a partnership between federal, state and local governments is essential to success. A real opportunity could be before us to create a balanced transportation system.  

But with each new round of information we receive, including the content of last night’s State of the Union address, the president’s infrastructure promises lose their luster.

It’s concerning how unrealistic his approach is and hard to believe that federal investment could leverage private funds at a 7 to 1 ratio. That’s never happened before and is highly unlikely. What’s more likely is that the federal pot will be divided among those projects with the most capital in hand. Instead of investing in infrastructure projects that meet the public need, public funding will follow where private dollars flow. In essence, this approach to infrastructure spending diminishes public decision-making power to respond to the changing mobility needs of the American people, including demonstrated public interest in dramatically increasing federal spending on walking and biking infrastructure.

Regardless of the plan’s pitfalls, we’ve maintained some optimism; if nothing else, the president’s proposal is putting a much-needed focus on infrastructure investment, inviting debate about the projects that could be funded and the outcomes each can deliver. But last night gave us no assurances that smaller-scale projects with the potential to deliver outsized benefits—like trails and active transportation networks—will be taken seriously.

What is needed is an authentic, realistic national funding plan that delivers sufficient investment in balanced mobility choices and retains public responsibility for defining transportation priorities. Only then will this infrastructure plan meet 21st-century needs and deliver meaningful outcomes to the nation.

Kevin Mills is the senior vice president for policy at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the country’s largest trails and active-transportation advocacy organization currently working to ensure trail, walking and biking infrastructure is included in pending federal infrastructure legislation.