Region’s trail funding future is unclear

This fall, the pool of money that has been infusing the region’s budding trail network for the past three years dried up. 

The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) has doled out the last bit of support from the $10 million pot that the William Penn Foundation* dedicated to trail building. Now regional trail advocates want to refill the pool with dedicated trail funds, but where that capital might come from is unclear. Chances are, though, it will not come from the William Penn Foundation.

In November 2010, the William Penn Foundation awarded DVRPC $10 million to create a Regional Trails Program, which would distribute the funding to trail development projects over a three-year span. Since then that $10 million has helped move 40 miles of trails forward as well as leverage millions of additional dollars. 

In many ways the $10 million grant accomplished what the William Penn Foundation hoped it would, but now that the money has been divided among projects, the foundation has no plans to replace it. 

Not wanting to lose momentum, regional trail advocates have begun campaigning. The movement is being led by The Circuit Coalition, a group advocating on behalf of The Circuit, a work-in-progress 750-mile regional trail network. 

“The Circuit Coalition Campaign is essentially making a case to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission that the funding was a huge success and that it should be replenished with another $10 million for a three-year period,” said Sarah Clark Stuart, policy director at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and a Circuit Coalition leader. 

The Circuit Coalition is not seeking this $10 million from foundations or other private sector sources. Instead, the coalition wants a small percentage of the region’s transportation budget to be dedicated to regional trail development. 

“We think that it’s up to the region,” Stuart said. “It’s time for the region to make an investment in itself … . We think the first place to look is essentially the transportation capital budget that the region has.”

Stuart said between highways and mass transit, the region spends $1.4 billion annually, so a request of essentially $3.3 million per year would be less than one percent of that annual budget. 

“This is almost change you can find in the couch cushion,” said Chris Linn, who manages DVRPC’s environmental planning group and the Regional Trails Program. 

Still, Linn said it is a big ask to request that decision makers set aside this money because it would come from transportation funds, and the region does not have enough transportation funding to maintain and preserve its current system. 

“All our bridges are falling down, and we don’t have enough money to fix them,” he said. “That might be an overstatement, but times are tight, at least in the eyes of the people making decisions.”

Since June the Circuit Coalition has been trying to grow public support for its regionally funded, dedicated pool of trail funding idea. Stuart said the coalition will make a formal request to the DVRPC board, potentially in early 2014.

William Penn and a regional perspective 

The William Penn Foundation has a long history of funding trail projects, but in 2009 it began to shift the trail-funding approach. 

Andrew Johnson, a senior program officer, said around that time, “it became apparent that all these individual trail projects were actually beginning to add up to something more.”

He said the foundation was getting a sense that all of the trails would have more potential if they were viewed as one, connected network rather than separate entities and that, for some of the longer trails in the region, multiple advocacy groups were competing against each other for the same funds, creating “self-defeating competition that wasn’t productive.”

By 2010 when the William Penn Foundation awarded the $10 million grant, “they wanted to promote the idea of a single regional trail system where the trails, as they got filled, would come together and connect into one network, so essentially we’re all building one trail,” Linn said.  

Since then, DVRPC has divided the $10 million among 42 projects. Eighteen projects received $5.2 million in design and construction funding, and 11 received $496,000 for planning and feasibility work. This fall 13 projects were awarded $4 million for design and construction. 

Now that all of the money is allocated, Johnson said the foundation is “very supportive of the idea of continuing to have a pool of capital that can be applied to Circuit projects,” but the foundation is, once again, shifting its trail-funding approach. 

The foundation is still interested in supporting the organizations leading the Circuit Coalition, so that these groups can secure additional capital funds and provide technical assistance to trail builders, but Johnson said the foundation is also looking at trails “as a platform essentially for reaching thousands of people who are right next to rivers about some sort of water quality message.”

“We’re actually beginning to focus our grant making specifically on using trails as platforms to build constituency,” he said. 

State of the network

The $10 million William Penn Foundation grant that has been supporting trails for the past three years may be divvied up, but that does not mean trail development will come grinding to a halt just yet.

For starters, the last $4 million allocated to 13 projects has not been spent yet. Many of the other projects that the $10 million grant has supported are still in the process of being built. The Schuylkill Crossing at Grays Ferry, Manayunk Bridge, Spring Garden Street Connector, Frankford Creek Greenway and Ivy Ridge Trail all received funding and all remain in various states of completion. 

“The public will still see these projects completed and rolled out over the next couple years,” said Ryan Gallagher, an assistant manager in DVRPC’s Office of Project Implementation. “Even though the program’s funds are no longer there I think the impact of the program is going to continue for quite some time.”

In addition, the William Penn Foundation’s $10 million grant has not been the only source of trail funding over the last three years. The recently completed Port Richmond Trail was constructed with TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) funds. Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grants provided $400,000 for the creation of a separated two-way bike lane on the Grays Ferry Bridge, $250,000 toward the Schuylkill River Boardwalk and $204,236 toward the Manayunk Bridge Trail. 

As for The Circuit’s 750-mile goal, 275 miles have been completed and 50 miles are in development. Another 425 miles remain. 

“I think people do see the value of a connected network,” Johnson said. “It’s not just some abstraction. It really captures people’s imaginations and we have such terrific examples of where the connectivity works and then examples of where you could just imagine if a gap were filled, it would create a radically different experience in a good way.” 

[Full disclosure: PlanPhilly is a product of PennPraxis, the applied research arm of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. PlanPhilly receives funding from the William Penn Foundation]

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