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by Bianca Phillips - The Memphis Flyer -
Earlier this year, Livable Memphis won a federal Recreational Trails grant to fund the development of a bike path leading from Overton Park to Broad Avenue.
But thanks to a new Federal Transportation Bill signed into law two weeks ago, future federal grants funding biking and pedestrian projects may be harder to come by. The bill cut dedicated biking and walking funds by 33 percent, and it gives state governors the power to divert even more of those funds for highway projects.
"The state has more discretion about whether they want to even set aside this money for additional biking and walking activities. Fifty percent of that money can now go into highway spending, or they can keep it and administer a statewide competition for grants at the local level. That's a huge change," said Anthony Siracusa, president of Bike Walk Tennessee.
The bill lumps the Recreational Trails program into the same category with the Safe Routes to Schools program, which promotes biking and walking to schools, and the Transportation Enhancements Program, which funds things like interstate rest stops, scenic vistas, and landscaping.
Before, each program was funded separately, and now they're all funded using the same money, which was cut by 33 percent from the past funding structure. Additionally, governors can decide if they want to retain the trails program at all.
"The state gets to decide if they want to retain the Recreational Trails program. It's a small amount of money, but the governor could decide we don't want to build trails anymore," said Kyle Wagenschutz, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Memphis Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).
Half of the overall funding for trails, Safe Routes to Schools, and enhancements may be diverted into other highway projects, depending on what the governor wants to do with the funds.
"That's where we would see the biggest hit from all of these changes. They could transfer those funds to build a highway," Wagenschutz said.
But another change to the bill may actually help Shelby County. Before, all cities in Tennessee had to compete for federal biking and pedestrian funds. But the new bill administers half of its funds to local MPOs, like the one in Shelby County, so it may be used for a local competition between, say, Memphis and Bartlett.
"Under the previous legislation, we'd submit an application to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, and they'd compare our application with others from across the state. In 2011, no municipality in Shelby County was awarded a Transportation Enhancement grant," Wagenschutz said. "A lot of other counties got great stuff, but we were competing with small and large communities."
Wagenschutz said Shelby County stands to benefit from this change, and he doesn't think the cuts to biking and walking spending will be too much of a hit for Memphis since bike lanes can also be funded using other road-building dollars.
"In the city of Memphis, all of the bike lanes we've constructed over the past two years did not use any of these dedicated bicycle and pedestrian sources," Wagenschutz said. "We used traditional road maintenance and construction dollars."
Nevertheless, Livable Memphis is encouraging biking and walking advocates to advocate for the governor retaining all biking and walking funds rather than diverting the 50 percent and eliminating the trails program.
"We're really going to have to step up advocacy because the money is not guaranteed for these programs," said Elizabeth Soba with Livable Memphis. "There's a pot of money there, but it's not specified for biking and walking like it used to be."