Trails in Indiana

THE SURFACE TRANSPORTATION BUDGET DEBATE—STILL IN LIMBO

Lately, a void seems to have hit the news on reauthorization of surface transportation funding. No doubt with elections over, there will soon be more to tell, since its latest extension is set to expire at the end of December. Trail builders and proponents watch this process especially, because states have received substantial sums of money for alternative transportation projects through this budget. According to the Rails to Trails Conservancy (RTC), Transportation Enhancements, or TE, are the “. . . nation’s largest funding source for trails, walking and bicycling.” The TE funds come from the federal surface transportation budget.

Future Transportation Enhancements depend on whether Congress includes them in reauthorization of a new surface transportation bill. However, revenues have been down for the Highway Trust Fund. Further, states were ordered in mid-August to give back $2.2 billion in unspent transportation funds. The RTC reported that more than 25% of these rescissions came off of TE funds. Indiana , it turns out, trimmed its transportation budget in a more across-the-board fashion, however, not just from trails.
The Surface Transportation budget is huge—in the billions—and it covers many different programs, railroad shipping rates and rules, trucking regulations, maritime administration, highway safety, research, hazardous materials transport, highway and bridge construction, and now high speed rail, to name a few examples. It also oversees rail abandonment, which is valuable real estate for possible trails, or if, say, a future rail corridor is needed again in this age of uncertain transportation details. Large budget bills are difficult to draft and pass in any economic climate. In this session of Congress, however, getting a handle on what’s happening with transportation funding is even more sketchy.
 
To review a bit of history, the surface transportation budget is renewed every 4-6 years by the U. S. Congress. The Surface Transportation Board, part of the federal Department of Transportation, replaced the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1995. Trail projects had begun picking up momentum several years earlier when the 1991 transportation budget passed, called ISTEA—the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. Each budget reauthorization carries with it a new moniker, according to the name of the act which authorizes it.
In 2005, SAFETEA-LU debuted—the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users. The Transportation Enhancements Program (TEP) came in under SAFETEA-LU, and it was administered by the Federal Highway Administration. In addition, the SAFETEA-LU Act was important for trails in that the Recreational Trails program was first authorized by Congress at that time.
 
A couple of other programs that have impacted trail funding were/are the TIGER grants and the just-announced TIGER II grants, or Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery. They definitely created jobs, though, according to transportation construction industry publication Roads and Bridges, both TIGER grant programs received overwhelming numbers of applications, which points up the staggering need of infrastructure improvements that are waiting to get done.
As indicated, a lot of trail miles have been built in the past twenty years using monies funneled from surface transportation budgets, via the Federal Highway Administration.
A major bump in the road has emerged, however, because much of the highway trust fund money—including trails funding—comes from federal gasoline taxes, which have fallen lately. These taxes amount to 18.4 cents on a gallon for gasoline engines, and diesel is five cents higher. The decline in revenue necessitated the Federal Highway Trust Fund to have to borrow from the U. S. General Fund to bridge a serious shortfall. The General Fund is all funds that cover administrative and operating costs and all funds not designated for a specific purpose. For transportation, this decrease in revenues from gas taxes is usually attributed to people driving less due to higher gas prices, along with an increase in numbers of hybrid and electric cars.
 
One begins to appreciate the problems of putting budgets together as he/she wades through the whole budget “pie” and all those projects and their proponents who desire a slice, not to mention the pressing need to balance the federal budget. Miles of roads, bridges, rail, national park roads, and somewhere in the mix, trails, are only a few of the hands held out, along with other transportation venues needing dollars too.
So far, the SAFETEA-LU funding has been kept afloat via extensions on its budget, until another surface transportation bill is authorized. It’s November, though, and funding is in place until the last of December. How to solve the dilemma?
The White House has said that President Obama will announce plans in February this coming year for restructuring the transportation b
 

udget system, recognizing that, even if reauthorized by Congress, the problems creating shortfalls still need fixing. According to transportation officials’ AASHTO website, the heads-up news is that the President wants to introduce a national infrastructure bank as part of the six-year transportation authorization proposal.

 
The transportation bank idea, not a wholly new concept, would hopefully encourage private investment in the transportation dilemma, along with federal funds. Some legislators have misgivings about the idea, thinking that it would end up like Fannie Mae. However, the Department of Transportation disagrees, because construction of toll roads and bridges, for example, would generate revenue allowing repayment of loans for such projects.
Whitehouse.gov has said the administration wants “to maintain the short-term solvency. . and the long-term sustainability of the Highway Trust Fund. . . . the budget shows reduced trust fund appropriation for certain programs to maintain positive cash balances in the trust fund.” Which items these “certain programs” are was not specified.
 
So, how are trails fitted into all this, or will they be? Trails definitely have millions of proponents and no specific cuts in trail funding have as yet been targeted for the upcoming surface transportation debate. Looks like we’ll have to wait and see, though, how the economic mood, budget needs and balancing, and other factors such as recent election results, mesh together in order to find out.
 
Article by Jane Conrad.