Active transportation (biking, walking, etc.) could potentially give the U.S economy a boost of $138.5 billion a year – if we invest in it. So concludes a study by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, (RTC). The investment will require a major overhaul of federal transportation policy and a major change away from a sedentary lifestyle.
The nation invested in a railway system in the 19th Century, then an Interstate highway network in the 20th. “Congress must now invest federal dollars in a national active transportation system so every American might realize the transformative benefits this infrastructure can bring, concludes Active Transportation Transforms America: The Case for Increased Public Investment in Walking and Biking Connectivity (https://www.railstotrails.org/media/847675/activetransport_2019-report_finalreduced.pdf).
Specifically, trails investment can boost rural economies. The natural surface Whitefish Trail in Whitefish, MT gets more than 73,000 visits a year, for instance, bringing in almost “$3.6 million in spending on accommodations, restaurants, groceries, retail, gas, transportation, licenses and entrance fees, outfitters/guides and farmers markets, in that order, from 22,000 visitors,” the report states.
Concurrent with the report's release, RTC conducted a webinar on the topic. “It's hard to overestimate the positive impact to our communities in Montana,” said webinar participant Martha Williams, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “We are seeing the benefits to all communities, whether large or small, urban or rural.” Connecting communities is the greatest advantage; “it's not just recreation,” she said. While “trails in Butte had a really strong positive impact, rural communities benefited in a different way. “I am thinking of (trails) around more rural towns where people still use them for transportation,” Williams said.
While federal and RTC support helps, “all trails we work on are joint efforts,” Williams added. “Every trail project involved many partners.” Some involved motorized as well as non-motorized transit.
“It's great to be part of a bigger effort to plug gaps in (the trail network) in Montana, and grow momentum from that,” she said, referring to the Great American Rail Trail effort RTC is spurring to built a continuous off-road cross-country trail system from Washington to Washington – DC to Seattle (https://www.cyclingutah.com/advocacy/road-advocacy/great-american-rail-trail-planned-for-cross-country-cycling/).
In that spirit, the Great American Rail-Trail project is sponsoring a series of “catalyst initiatives,” or efforts along the way designed not only to fill gaps but to spur communities to add onto them. One such effort focuses on a 52-mile segment in Montana from Livingston south through Emigrant to Gardiner, the gateway to the north side of Yellowstone National Park. The plan involves converting the Old Yellowstone Trail, an abandoned rail line that used to take tourists to the park. “Park County has always been interested in turning it into a trail,” says RTC Trail Planner Kevin Belanger.
The partners are first focusing on the 22-mile segment between Livingston and Emigrant, where they have completed a feasibility study and are working on engineering. The remaining 30 miles to the south needs a feasibility study, Belanger says. The newly enacted Trails and Recreational Facilities Account and Grant Program started in Montana this year, funded by vehicle registration fees, is helping finance the trail. See: https://www.cyclingutah.com/advocacy/mountain-advocacy/montana-trails-to-see-new-trail-grants/
Another catalyst project: completing a trial in Wyoming between Glenrock and Evansville, just east of Casper. RTC is working with the Friends of the Platte River Trails to build a trail of about 5.5 miles from Casper to Edness K. Wilkins State Park, a popular site for boating, birding, fishing, swimming, etc. All the project needs now is funding. Extending it east to Glenrock is trickier: “We don't know the ownership status of all the land. It needs more research on local ownership and making sure it' is a viable option to use,” Belanger says.
Disclosure: I am an RTC member.