Safe Roads Amendment...I dunno


"...or other forms of transportation."

That's as close as the Illinois Safe Roads Amendment (HJRCA0036) comes to protecting state transportation revenue that funds non-motorized trails.

You've seen the tremendous ad buys and marketing outreach that highway builders and unions have invested in to amend the Illinois Constitution with language that protects transportation-derived state revenue from being swept to fund projects and programs unrelated to transportation. The full text of the bill—which has overwhelming bipartisan support—is here.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources' Illinois Bike Path Program has been a favored target for sweeps by governors and legislators since Blagojevich (sweeping funds is one of the few things in Illinois that crosses party lines). It's a small but valuable pot of money: on paper, it provides 50% of development costs up to $200,000 for non-motorized, multi-use trails, and has no maximum limit for buying necessary trail right-of-way. Since it's state funding, local agencies can let it themselves, avoiding a lot of IDOT-related bureaucracy (and expense). 

The program has a dedicated source of funding through motor vehicle title transfer fees, collecting around $1.5 million per year, but hasn't been able to award funds since 2008 because of sweeps.

This is exactly the problem the Safe Roads Amendment was written to address—transportation-related revenue being appropriated for use outside of transportation. But when it comes to trails, I'm not confident that it does. The amendment lists the approved projects where transportation-related revenue can go: 

...highways, roads, streets, bridges, mass transit, intercity passenger rail, ports, airports, or other forms of transportation...and, with respect to local governments, other transportation purposes as authorized by law.

I'd feel a whole lot better if the specifics included trails, and here's why: Most trails in Illinois have been built with transportation-related funding, usually federal transportation dollars that have been set aside for non-motorized projects; programs like Transportation Enhancements, Congestion Mitigation & Air Quality, and Recreational Trails Program have provided tens of millions of dollars for Illinois trails and other biking and walking facilities annually. While the Safe Roads spending restrictions don't apply to federal programs, every time the federal transportation budget has been renewed, trail advocates have had to fight off highway interests angling to abolish those set aside programs by using a lot of the same language and rationale that I read and hear in support of the Safe Roads Amendment.

Trails have become enormously important to the transportation network in Illinois, and I would argue that their impact on quality of life—including the mitigation of driving-related health issues like heart disease, chronic stress and diabetes—vaults trails from nicety to necessity. SOME part of our transportation dollars should be spent on projects that actually make people healthier, and make communities more livable and sustainable, don't you think?

In a state like ours which has defaulted on so many promises to use our taxes and fees to fund this or that, I understand the argument that the Safe Roads Amendment might be the only way to keep transportation funds from leaving transportation. If it truly requires the dramatic step of amending the state constitution to get it, I want funding for trails unambiguously protected from sweeps as well.