Peoria Journal Star

September 6, 2003

Park district lauds House vote on trails
Decision would keep federal funding for Peoria hiking, biking path intact

of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In a move praised by Peoria Park District officials Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 327 to 90 to protect federal funding for hiking and bicycle trails.

The vote reversed a House committee action that Peoria officials worried would threaten long-standing plans to build a $4.2 million trail along the Kellar Branch rail bed.

The planned trail, a four-mile segment through Peoria and Peoria Heights, is the final piece needed to connect two parts of what will be a 70-mile trail.

"It's a very positive sign," Bonnie Noble, director of parks and recreation for the Peoria Park District, said of the Thursday night House vote.

Federal and state officials have agreed to pay 80 percent of the trail's cost, but delays in its construction could drive up the price. If that happens, the park district would need additional funds, Noble said.

For the past decade, such funds have been available through the
transportation funding bill. But interest groups have tried to get Congress to earmark them for other purposes. In July, a House appropriations subcommittee proposed cutting $600 million nationwide for such "transportation enhancement" programs in order to put more funds to highway projects.

Later that month, the full House Appropriations Committee softened the provision, voting to make state spending on such programs optional.

Currently, states must spend 10 percent of federal highway funds on bike trails and similar projects. Illinois spends $20 million a year in federal funds on such programs.

The House voted Thursday to require the spending on trails.
U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, said it would be spent on something else otherwise.

"I guarantee you, what these governors will do is not turn this money into Rails to Trails or other amenities or other enhancements," he said. "They will use it for other things."

LaHood, who is a jogger, described it as "a marvelous program."
He had been one of two Republicans on the committee to vote with Democrats to keep the spending mandatory. In the full House, the vote was more bipartisan - 132 Republicans and 194 Democrats voted to support an amendment by Reps. Tom Petri, R-Wis., and John Olver, D-Mass., to protect the funding.

The 90 opponents were all Republican.

Final action on the House transportation funding bill is expected next week.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit group that advocates converting unused rail corridors to hiking and biking trails, praised the House vote.

"Congress had shown that it values the health and safety of Americans more than throwing even more money toward highway interests," said Keith Laughlin, president of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.