Arizona trails and future projects that promote more walking and biking may be put on hold if a few key Congressional leaders have their way.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., both have announced plans recently that would eliminate funding for programs like Safe Routes to School, Recreational Trails Program and Transportation Enhancements. These are federally funded projects through the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) that provide cities with grants for building new sidewalks, crosswalks and trails as well as educating kids about the benefits of walking or biking to school. Safe Routes to School has grown each year in Arizona.
"The Arizona Department of Transportation's Safe Routes to School program remains intact and thriving," said Laura Douglas, spokesperson for ADOT. "We can't speculate about the future of Safe Routes to School funding by the federal government because no decisions have been made. However, we are moving forward with all programs currently funded with SRTS money."
SRTS recently awarded more than $3 million in grant funding for 21 projects across the state. A total of $5 million is available during the next grant cycle, which begins in September, right around the time that the Safe Routes to School National Partnership is expecting Mica to come out with his official bill.
"All we've got so far is that Mr. Mica has released this outline," said Margo Pedroso, deputy director for Safe Routes to School National Partnership. "It's about 20 pages and fairly high level. The actual bill text we don't think will be available until September but the way the outline is worded it seems pretty clear that funding for biking and walking will be lost and states will no longer have a way to pay for those. They'll have to find a way to carve it out of the other money they have, which would be really difficult since the House bill calls for cutting transportation spending by a third."
Robert Baldwin, recreational trails grants coordinator for Arizona State Parks, said many agencies in Arizona like the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and National Parks use the Recreational Trails funding regularly to maintain trails and provide signage and facilities to users. Baldwin said without these funds many trails maintained by the state may lose their regular upkeep.
"The possibility is very real that these funds will go away," Baldwin said in an email this week. "With other cuts to federal budgets and loss of personnel, without these funds very little trail maintenance would occur."
The city of Phoenix has used grants to complete projects on Piestewa Peak but Jerry Waehner, park supervisor for the city, said the city does not currently have any applications out for additional grants.
Pedroso says the way federal funding works is it is used for the original construction of infrastructure but after that the city is asked to maintain the trails and sidewalks. Existing trails within the city should not be affected by cuts to these programs, but any additional trail building may not happen.
"It will definitely trickle down and affect Phoenix in terms of any construction that needs to be done on roads and bridges for Phoenix, as well as Phoenix's ability to compete for federal dollars to address local needs," Pedroso said. "If the funding is not there, it's unlikely Phoenix would be able to tap into that. The state department of transportation would not be offering grant opportunities anymore for transportation enhancements and Safe Routes to School. You'd kind of be stuck with the infrastructure you have now and I'm sure there are lots of neighborhoods where the sidewalk goes part way and then stops or there is no sidewalk or there really are just not good connections for biking and walking."
Safe Routes to School National Partnership is urging residents to get involved and contact their members of Congress and ask them to stop Mica and Inhofe from attempting to eliminate this funding.
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