Bike trails have grown to become a mini highway system in the region in the past 20 years, but the funding used to build them has some interesting competition.
The transportation enhancement dollars issued by the Indiana Department of Transportation to the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission for distribution in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties can fund trails, historical projects and other work such as the removal of billboards and beautification of downtown streetscapes.
One area that falls under the funding guidelines is mitigation of environmental contamination or other problems caused by transportation, such as polluted runoff from roads or poorly constructed culverts that block the migration of native aquatic species.
But in the 20 years the program has been in place, less than 1 percent of the funding statewide has gone toward environmental projects. Environmental leaders at NIRPC are trying to change that.
"That message wasn't being conveyed until the environmental department came to be here at NIRPC," said Joe Exl, senior water manager at NIRPC. "There is definitely a demonstrated need for projects such as that, especially with so many watershed management groups coming to the area."
NIRPC representatives recently learned the commission might not be receiving any transportation enhancement funds from the state this year.
Will Wingfield, spokesman for INDOT, said the transportation enhancement funds are distributed by the Federal Transportation Administration. The FTA is operating under a 90-day extension granted by Congress in late March.
"As it currently stands, with the uncertainty, there is no guarantee transportation enhancement will be renewed (federal) funding," Wingfield said. "There is general uncertainty about what the program will look like moving forward. There's some talk of consolidating some programs."
Still, NIRPC representatives said the push for more environmental projects from transportation funds will continue.
Mitch Barloga, non-motorized transportation specialist for NIRPC, said the planning agency generally receives $2 million a year in transportation enhancement funding through INDOT. Of that, 80 percent goes to trails and 20 percent goes to the other qualifying projects.
Historical, scenic, commerce and other projects including environmental mitigation all split the remaining 20 percent of the funds. Some of the projects funded by the transportation enhancement dollars include the construction of the Indiana Dunes Tourism building and the renovation of the former historical train depot in downtown LaPorte into Central Station Plaza, which houses the the Greater LaPorte Chamber of Commerce and the Greater LaPorte Economic Development Corp.
"We get millions in trail requests each year and the funding has gone toward them because that's where the demand is," Barloga said. "There is big competition. I think trails have to have another funding mechanism (other than transportation enhancement funds). They deserve more respect."
Barloga said there are other state and federal programs that provide funding for trails, including the Federal Highway Administration's Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program.
"I would love to see more money with CMAQ and other funding for trails because they're eligible," Barloga said. "There also has to be the realization that we can't just continue to cater to the car," Barloga said.
Wingfield said INDOT will work with current transportation enhancement projects as officials await a decision on federal funding for new projects.
"In terms of transportation enhancement projects, there are many projects in various planning stages that have been awarded funding that are not moving along as anticipated," Wingfield said. "We will be seeking updates from planners and working with local officials to plan for those projects moving forward."