Dennis Degnan via GETTY IMAGES

Influx of Federal Cash Headed to Trail Projects Nationwide

Some of the money is from new earmarks included in a recent federal spending package. The funding comes as bike and pedestrian trail use has been on the rise.

Lace up your sneakers and oil your bike chain–there’s a major boost in federal funding on the way for rail trails and other cycling and pedestrian projects, and advocates are ready to run with it. 

Under the “omnibus” spending law President Biden signed in late December, 29 states secured earmarks for trail, walking and biking projects, according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. With a total of $26.7 million going toward developing trail networks nationwide, the funding underscores the growing interest in recent years for so-called active transportation options and expanded recreational infrastructure. 

In 2022, trail use was up by 9.5%, a jump that nearly matches a record-high increase in 2020, according to the conservancy. Perhaps more notably, trail use rose 45% since 2019. 

“There is momentum behind the vision of a nation connected by trails, and urgency to unlock the benefits that only connected trail systems deliver,” conservancy president Ryan Chao said in a virtual event Thursday. 

Some of the earmarked funds include nearly $12.3 million to connect 800 miles of trails across southern New Jersey and Pennsylvania; $6.5 million for the Capital Trails Coalition in the Washington, D.C. area; and nearly $2.2 million to link 1,000 miles of trails across New England.

Additionally, the omnibus includes $45 million for the new Active Transportation Infrastructure Investment Program, which will offer competitive grants for trail projects.

To help communities navigate the new funding, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy launched its TrailNation Collaborative, which aims to build a nationwide network of advocates, elected officials and planners that can share methods, tools and resources for developing trail networks. 

“The magic of this work happens when teams come together across sectors and from different lived experiences to envision how their community can best serve everyone who lives there,” said Liz Thorstensen, the conservancy’s vice president of trail development. 

From improving the health of residents to reducing air pollution from gas-powered vehicles, trails offer a plethora of benefits to the cities they connect. But as local leaders continue to develop and expand trail networks, it’s critical to focus on equity, advocates said during Thursday’s event. 

To be successful and sustainable, trail projects need to be about more than connecting networks of pavement, said Arica Gonzalez, executive director and founder of The Urban Oasis, a community revitalization organization in Baltimore. 

“Relationships are paramount to this work,” she said. 

Gonzalez described her experience of trying to rally residents to work with a state agency to establish a green community space, and how those residents met the proposal with skepticism.

“These were trauma responses, really,” she said. “These are people speaking from generations of experience of what happens in minority communities–especially redlining communities like ours–where we know that progress oftentimes means displacement, gentrification, inequity.”

Molly Bolan is the assistant editor for Route Fifty. 

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