Rails-to-Trails: Promoting A More Active American Lifestyle
By Bill Moore
Keith Laughlin has worked in government much of his adult life, including eight years in the White House, but he considers leading the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy the last 12 years the best job he's ever had.
With more than 21,000 miles of trails across all 50 states, the chances are there's a Rail-to-Trail system not far from where you live, assuming, of course, you live in the United States. Because of the work over the last 27 years of Washington, D.C.-based Rail to Trail Conservancy millions of people have benefited from the conversion of abandoned rail lines to recreational walking and biking trails through both urban and rural settings.
To better understand the workings of the Conservancy, we chatted with its President, Keith Laughlin, who prior to accepting the position worked in Clinton White House.
Essentially, the Conservancy is a lobbying organization that makes sure there are funds set aside in each federal transportation budget to help communities and organizations acquire the rights to abandoned lines and convert them to multi-purpose trails, which, depending on community resources and funding, can be paved with a hard surface of either concrete or asphalt, or in more rural settings covered with crushed and then compacted limestone, producing a good, all-weather path.
In addition to insuring Washington politicians allocate funding for pedestrian and cycling infrastructure (only 1.5¢ out of every dollar federal transportation dollar - 80¢ of every dollar goes to automobile infrastructure: bridges, roads, etc.), the Conservancy helps communities walk through the acquisition and planning aspects of the project, often finding other sources of funding beyond federal funds.
We asked Laughlin what impact if any the current fiscal climate has on available funding; has the sequester impacted efforts to construct more trails?
"I guess you could say we are the victims of our own success," he responded, explaining that the forced sequester on federal spending, doesn't impact the transportation budget; falling federal gasoline tax revenues do. The current federal tax on the sale of gasoline has been 18¢ for many years despite inflation and rising oil prices.
"We're all driving more efficient vehicles. We're using less gasoline and that impacts tax revenues."
It's predicted that the Highway Trust Fund will run a $15 billion deficit this year, spending more than it's taking in, thanks largely to politicians who are afraid to increase the tax for fear of angering voters. For programs like Rails-to-Trails that translates into a 30 percent cut in available funding in the latest federal transportation bill passed last summer.
Nevertheless, there are some 9,000 miles of new trails in the development pipeline, some of which are now 'Rails-with-Trails' projects that have trails running alongside still-operating rail lines.
You can listen to our entire 27-minute conversation using the embedded MP3 player below. You can also find trails near you using the organization's new TrailLink.com trail finder website.
Originally published: 13 May 2013
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