By Jessica Reid / Contributor
Transportation is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions (28%) than any other sector in the United States.
With the incoming Biden administration having shared a $2 trillion climate proposal, the East Coast Greenway-led call for federal infrastructure investment in active transportation can play a key role in the transition to cleaner and more sustainable transportation.
New political leadership is a time of great opportunity for supporting more climate-friendly transportation. Now is a critical time to make this change, as our country continues to emit greenhouse gases at rates above safe levels for warding off climate disasters in the coming decades.
President Biden nominated Pete Buttigieg for United States Secretary of Transportation. Buttigieg has already prioritized sustainable infrastructure as Mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“Infrastructure was at the heart of our vision. We reimagined how people and vehicles moved through the city, unlocking new economic vibrancy in our urban core … We built up partnerships that … put our city at the cutting edge of bicycle mobility … to help prepare for a more sustainable future,” said Buttigieg when introduced as Secretary nominee.
In addition to climate mitigation, investing in trails and greenways is essential for public health, safety, connecting and building out equitable public space, and economic development. It would improve air quality by reducing car usage. It would reduce pedestrian deaths by providing off-road routes for walking and biking. Expanding greenways can improve mental and physical health by providing safe areas to be active and outdoors. Plus, funding can lead to economic recovery during and after the pandemic by creating jobs. Guaranteed funding could also encourage sustainable projects by providing a level of financial security for developers.
Greenways are a path to equity. As many communities of color and low-income communities struggle to access affordable transportation, developed greenway networks are free and should be available to all. People in urban, suburban and rural settings want better transportation and recreation infrastructure for their communities. This is a critical moment for us to join together with people from all backgrounds to build a better future accessible to all.
The East Coast Greenway Alliance suggests three priorities for funding greenways and trails:
1. Federal Greenway Stimulus infrastructure investment
Imagine all 50 states connected by greenways and trails. People could bike, walk or run on scenic and safe paths to get where they need to be or to take a longer journey to see a new region. Such a system is not fantasy but is quite feasible with enough funding.
A $10 billion Greenway Stimulus would transform the country. Supported by more than 180 organizations across the nation, Greenway Stimulus would allow the completion of thousands of miles in shovel-worthy projects, poised to drive economic growth and public health improvement in the next few years.
Just to be clear, a stimulus is different from an emergency relief bill. After the government has enacted policies to help the millions of people struggling due to the pandemic, it should invest in greenways to help rebuild our country.
Greenway infrastructure investment has the highest return for our economy in terms of jobs and for our community in terms of health and environmental sustainability. Recent studies along the 3,000-mile East Coast Greenway show a more than ten-fold return. A $2.5 billion investment this decade could turn into over $25 billion in benefits as the route is completed.
Here are the top infrastructure projects planned along the East Coast Greenway in all 15 states and Washington, D.C. Greenway Stimulus would be instrumental in bringing these projects to fruition.
Stimulus is something that voters support. At least 70% of voters in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic support the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), which aims to increase clean energy and reduce carbon emissions in the transportation sector in this region. Also, 88% of voters in this region consider reducing air pollution and traffic congestion to be key concerns. The Greenway can address these concerns by providing a way to travel that produces much less pollution and lowers traffic congestion.
Americans across different races, education levels, income levels, ages and genders support increased federal funding for walking and biking. A 2020 poll from League of American Bicyclists and Ipsos showed that 78% of Americans think their communities would be better places to live if biking were safer and more comfortable. Further, 60% of Amerians believe the federal government should increase funding for walking and biking. Among respondents, Black Americans show the most support (62%) for increased funding for walking and biking. Increasing trails and greenways can bring Americans together and help the most vulnerable.
Some of the funds could go directly to raising the quality of life in communities of color, which tend to have less access to the healing power of the outdoors.
2. The East Coast Greenway should become a federal “mega project”
The East Coast Greenway is a transformative infrastructure project. It is a walking and biking route stretching 3,000 miles from Maine to Florida that is almost 40% complete, connecting our nation’s most populated corridor. The East Coast Greenway is designed to transform the 15 states it connects through active and healthy lifestyles, sustainable transportation, community engagement, climate resilience, tourism, and more. Led by the nonprofit East Coast Greenway Alliance, the Greenway offers a safe place for bicyclists, walkers, runners, and more — of all ages and abilities — to commute, exercise, and visit new destinations. Its benefits make it transformative, including its high return on investment, its environmental benefits, its nature as equitable public space, and its key role connecting people with transit.
As an infrastructure megaproject, $2.5-$3.5 billion in funding would build out the remaining 2,000 miles to transform the 450 communities along the route, bringing people outdoors to new areas for healthy exercise and to support local businesses. The funding would support Biden’s plan to build modern, sustainable infrastructure. The Greenway’s environmental and economic benefits will help fulfill the climate goals of Biden’s new appointee Gina McCarthy, and the domestic policy goals of Susan Rice. Further, it would support Biden’s goal of significantly reducing emissions after recommitting to the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The Biden Administration should start this funding in its first 100 days in office. The likely new Senate Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer, can lead the change to pass policies allowing for sustainable infrastructure like the East Coast Greenway.
Of course, the greenway route benefits highly-populated areas like Washington, D.C., and New York City. It also crosses Delaware and Pennsylvania, areas Biden has called home. A new development in one of Biden’s hometowns, Claymont, Delaware, will include trails that connect to the East Coast Greenway. This Greenway segment links to Claymont Station, increasing connectivity between Claymont and other cities and towns in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Plus, the Greenway’s costs are relatively low. Completing the entire 3,000-mile East Coast Greenway requires about $3 billion, whereas seven new budget-eating highway projects slated to cost a total of $26 billion will support fewer jobs per dollar and will harm the environment while likely failing to achieve meaningful transportation goals. The benefits of funding for greenways are tremendous for a reasonable cost.
3. Significant increased funding for greenways as part of surface transportation reauthorization (at least $10 billion)
Greenways and trails, including the East Coast Greenway, must be a source of significant transportation funding in order to confer their many benefits. While the executive branch should support greenways, the House and Senate are ultimately critical for transportation funding and have the power to make the necessary decisions to make trail expansion feasible.
National Transportation Reauthorization could allow for enough funding to make these transformative infrastructure changes for our country. The current law expires September 30, 2021 (the old act was extended by one year after the House and Senate could not agree to changes in each of their two versions).
Congress should increase funding in key programs that support greenways and trails. For example, the Transportation Alternatives Program should receive increased funding to support biking and walking along with other programs like the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program (CMAQ), which supports projects that reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. The Biden Administration should also fund the Recreational Trails Program, which allows states to build and maintain trails. Decision-makers should be cognizant to devote funding to minority communities that often face the most burdens from pollution and climate change and that are most in need of trail access.
Historically, the federal government has devoted about 80% of funding to highways, about 20% to public transit and less than 1% to active transportation.
Prioritizing funding for highway expansion has many downsides. In addition to its contribution to climate and air pollution, highway expansion can lead to greater traffic congestion and create inequities if communities of color are cut off from other parts of the city.
Instead of focusing on highway funding, the government must fund another way of travel that is good for the economy, environment and equity - greenways.
Greenways are a key component for Biden to build back better. Greenway Stimulus is needed to achieve a healthy, resilient, and equitable future.
In a time of great challenge and change, we can rebuild a more sustainable country in part by growing our trails network and expanding the benefits of trails to millions of people across the country.
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