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Federal Transportation Budget Proposal Could Threaten Missouri Bike Plan

Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation
The Rock Island bike trail, part of an ambitious regional trail plan, could be threatened by a recently introduced measure in Congress.

A long-awaited bike trail spanning most of Missouri from east to west could be endangered by a pending transportation budget bill.

The measure introduced last week, House Resolution 2609, would eliminate the Department of Transportation’s Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), which provides funding to states for recreational trails, community improvement activities and safe routes to school, among other programs.

Called the “Right-of-Way for American Drivers Act of 2015,” the resolution was sponsored by Rep. Sam Johnson, a Texas Republican, and cosponsored by Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Missouri Republican.

TAP’s budget is equal to 2 percent of the total amount of federal transportation aid authorized each fiscal year. In fiscal 2015, TAP funding amounted to more than $800 million.

In a statement, Hartzler said states should have more authority over where that money goes.

“Missouri knows what is best for Missouri and Missourians,” Hartzler said. “This bill would remove the federal government from reaching into these local affairs, eliminate the federal bureaucratic red tape involved with the program, and remove the possibility of mandating funds for unnecessary or extraneous projects.”

Bike trail advocates, however, say that ending the program would threaten large-scale projects like the Rock Island Trail, a planned conversion of an abandoned railway into a bike path stretching across the northern Ozarks in Missouri. They say it would shift the financial burden to the state.

“Missouri, like many states around the country, is struggling now and doesn’t have a lot of money to put in such a project, so it could very likely kill the project,” says Patrick Wojahn, director of government relations for the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy, which promotes railway conversions nationwide.

Wojahn says TAP provides more than half the federal funding available for rails-to-trails projects.

In Missouri, TAP funding is also used for smaller bike trails, safe routes to school programs and sidewalks.

The Rock Island Trail bike plan, nearly half of which would run through Hartlzer’s 4th District just southeast of Kansas City, has divided local residents. Supporters says it would provide an economic boost to the region; opponents complain about the intrusiveness of the project and the use of public funds.

States already can opt out of receiving Recreational Trails Program money at a governor’s request. That can be done without forfeiting any of the federal transportation funding they receive. So far, Florida is the only state that has opted out.

But Hartzler insists that eliminating TAP wouldn’t prevent states from choosing to fund trails on their own.

That’s unlikely, to happen, according to officials with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

They say that if the program were eliminated, the money it provides to states would go directly to state departments of transportation, rather than the state resource agencies that typically handle the funds under current law. Though states could continue to spend the federal funds on trails, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation says it’s unlikely state DOTs would choose to do so.

TAP was created by Congress in 2012 as part of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21. The act reorganized federal transportation spending and authorized funds for highways, transit and other programs.

Challenges to federal funding for recreation trails are not uncommon, but trail advocates in recent years have been largely successful in preserving it.

Alex Smith is a reporter for KCUR, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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