Commentary

How will Virginia’s new Office of Trails spend $89 million?

October 26, 2022 12:04 am

A completed stretch of the Tobacco Heritage Trail in South Boston. (Wyatt Gordon)

The Eastern Shore and the Shenandoah Valley have few things in common, but what both regions of the state share is a deep desire to turn old rail corridors into new walking and biking trails — and $1 million in seed money from the state to get started. 

Since the General Assembly appropriated a historic $89 million for a new Office of Trails earlier this year, advocates and local officials alike have been wondering which projects will win funding and how soon the money could start flowing. While a number of lawmakers have already bragged to their constituents about securing funds for regional projects, no spending decisions beyond a first $5 million round have been made. 

Fighting for funding

When Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta first made access to the great outdoors part of his political profile by crafting legislation to improve state parks, his motivation was part personal passion and part looking out for his district. Two decades later, his commitment to include unprecedented trails funding in the budget came from the same place.

“The main driver for me is doing things to improve the economies in rural Virginia by playing to the strengths of rural Virginia without turning it into urban Virginia,” he said.

Does Virginia need an Office of Trails?

The senator first found new allies for trails funding in the General Assembly last year when society’s pandemic-triggered return to nature — and a large state surplus thanks to federal relief funds — inspired lawmakers to include $10 million in the budget for walking and biking projects. 

Lawmakers allocated even more funding to trails this summer. Outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam’s biennial budget initially proposed more than $200 million for trails, but Senate and House negotiations whittled that amount down to a still impressive $89 million. Passing such a huge sum out of the House and Senate required “certain understandings” as to how the millions would be spent, according to Hanger.

“There are earmarked line items for specific trails, and those we will fund at that level,” he explained. “In other areas it’s similar to larger capital funding projects in the state budget where we put them all in a pool and then do cost estimates. We don’t want to set specific budget items out because we want to build these project costs from the ground up rather than folks knowing we are planning on spending a set amount of money on each project.”

To each region its own

The official record of lawmakers’ financial negotiations came in the form of a letter to Secretary of Transportation Shep Miller this summer. The Commonwealth Transportation Board formalized legislators’ wish list in August via a resolution to assign $1 million each to five favored trails: the Eastern Shore Rail Trail, the Shenandoah Valley Rail Trail, the Tobacco Heritage Trail, the Peaks to Creeks Trail and the Craig Valley Trail.

Scattered across the commonwealth, the five trails represent the preferences of powerful politicians as much as they do one of the key factors the new Office of Trails will be weighing as it prioritizes which projects get funding — geographic diversity. The other critical criterion will be the need to balance the creation of new regional trails with the connection of existing trails.

Advocates hope the process for picking projects can be as removed from politics as possible through a potential prioritization process similar to SMART SCALE, which seeks to remove pork barrel preferences from transportation planning.

“We need a prioritization process to figure out what our top-tier trails are and which ones are secondary,” said Cat Anthony, president of the Virginia Trails Alliance. “There needs to be a balance between urban and rural trails to make sure both types of environments for trails are funded.”

Office assignments

Angel Deem, the Virginia Department of Transportation’s chief of policy, won’t commit to any prioritization process just yet. However, she believes the Office of Trails’ first two tasks — the creation of a trails clearinghouse and the crafting of a state trails plan — will ensure transparency as the $89 million in funding is allotted.

The trails data clearinghouse will bring under one umbrella all information on trails across the commonwealth, including mapping, cost estimates, alignments and whether a project has already passed planning and environmental review.

(Wyatt Gordon)

“This will show folks where trails are that they can access and help local governments to know what trails they could possibly work to fund and build,” said Deem.

The Office of Trails will also assemble a state trails plan similar to Virginia’s statewide rail plan. VDOT hopes to have outreach underway by the middle of next year, but for now the focus is on crafting position descriptions so that new staff recruitment can be completed later this winter.

Of the three positions available at the Office of Trails, Deem is certain one will be focused on project planning while the other will specialize in assisting localities with everything from funding agreements to project applications. VDOT is holding off on hiring the third position until the agency is sure where that manpower will be needed most.

“A lot of times we get additional objectives and no staffing to go along with it, but [with the Office of Trails] we just wanted to start conservatively and have the option to add someone on the back end as we get our arms around the full scope,” said Deem.

Even before the new office is fully staffed, VDOT plans to start the planning process for the five favored trails with consultants. The $89 million in trails funding has to be spent by the end of fiscal year 2024, meaning in 17 months the General Assembly could snatch any unspent money back to address other concerns.

“By early next year you’re going to start seeing some outcomes,” said Deem.

$89 million isn’t enough

With a $266 million projected price tag for the 43-mile Fall Line Trail through Richmond as a reference, exhausting the existing trails dollars ought to be no problem. The bigger conundrum will likely be where further funding can be found.

The $89 million lawmakers allotted to trails this year came out of the general fund, which means advocates and legislative champions will have to fight for more money every year unless a dedicated source of funding can be found. If a winning coalition can’t be cobbled together, then the dollars will dry up.

“I hope this is not a one-time deal because trails need a dedicated, sustainable pot of money every year so that new trails can be built and existing trails can be maintained,” Anthony said. “We need sustainable funding for years to come.”

The prospects for dedicated trails dollars currently appear bleak, however, with even Sen. Hanger — perhaps trails’ most vocal supporter — opposed to the idea: “Maybe we could come up with some dedicated funding source for trails, but right now when we have a surplus we can allocate, I would not be looking in that direction and instead would look to the general fund,” he said.

With the question of potential further funding unanswered, the Office of Trails is aiming to make the state trails plan the basis for an array of applications for federal funding.

“Trails can be funded from a number of programs, so the trails plan can really support applications for other funding programs and not necessarily continue [relying on] dedicated general fund money,” Deem explained. “It will provide more credence to trails either identified in the state trails plan or which meet the criteria in the state plan for regional trails. There is an opportunity to continue to build these trails. It’s just that it will be the result of applying for funding through a variety of other sources that bike/ped trails qualify for.”

Hanger for one believes localities are also ready to contribute to these community connectors. The increased tourism alone should be enticing enough to many areas that have witnessed the revitalization of small towns along other pathways like the Virginia Creeper Trail in the state’s southwest.

On the Eastern Shore, the steel rails from the abandoned train corridor are being sold off to help finance the coming trail construction. In the Shenandoah Valley, trail backers still need to acquire the right-of-way before they can even think of construction costs.

“I think there is adequate funding out there to do most of what we envision right now,” said Hanger. “There will be a need for raising additional money to support some aspects of the trail, but we have a plan to cover most of the costs here locally.”

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Wyatt is a born-and-raised Richmonder with a master’s in urban planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a bachelor’s in international political economy from the American University in Washington, D.C. Most recently he covered transportation as Greater Greater Washington’s Virginia correspondent. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network. Contact him at [email protected]

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