Fed transportation bill maintains most region funding, but future trails are in jeopardy

2012-06-29T17:45:00Z 2012-07-08T23:48:43Z Fed transportation bill maintains most region funding, but future trails are in jeopardyBy Keith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326 nwitimes.com

The U.S. Congress passed a $100 billion, two-year federal transportation bill Friday that maintains most funding for region roads and bridges but could slow development of bike and pedestrian trails.

The bill was the subject of furious negotiations between the House and Senate this week, with some earlier versions alarming transportation advocates by drastically cutting funds for mass transit and some other programs.

Now it looks like Northwest Indiana would continue to receive enough in federal funds to adhere to its current four-year transportation plan, according to John Swanson, executive director at the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission. That plan calls for $665.4 million in projects in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.

"We were very concerned before this," Swanson said. "The Senate version in particular would have whacked us."

The one area that remains of concern is funding for bike and pedestrian trails, where previous requirements for federal support were cut back and left largely to the discretion of the states, Swanson said.

Although information on what the bill actually does still was being developed late Friday afternoon, it appears at least half of the funds previously given to localities for bike and pedestrian trails now will remain with the states. The states then will have discretion on whether to use that money for trails or other projects such as roads and bridges.

"When you put roads and bridges up against bikes and trails, well you know who is going to win," said Mitch Barloga, NIRPC non-motorized transportation and greenways planner.

Some state legislators realize the importance of bike and pedestrian trails to the transportation system, but many still do not, Barloga said. He predicts a significant reduction in trail funding over the two-year life of the federal transportation bill.

Local communities also have been kicking in money for the trails, Barloga said. That money can be used as a "match" to qualify the project for federal transportation funds.

The region has made rapid progress on developing a bike and pedestrian trail network during the past decade. It is on track to have 100 miles of off-road trails fully dedicated to bikes and pedestrians by next year. An average of about $2 million has been spent annually to get to this point, Barloga said.

NIRPC's current four-year transportation plan calls for about $166 million in annual spending on all transportation projects, which includes roads, bridges, mass transit and trails. Spending on transportation enhancement projects, mainly trails, will be about $15 million.

Provisions in the federal transportation bill that would have unfairly penalized Indiana for the privatization of the Indiana Toll Road were pulled out before passage, according to the Indiana Department of Transportation.

INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield also pointed out that about 550 miles of new trails have been added in the state since 2006.

The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District still was sorting out the bill's ramifications Friday afternoon, said John Parsons, NICTD planning and marketing director. NICTD is particularly concerned about how changes in the federal rail modernization program might affect ongoing infrastructure projects on the South Shore.

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