Who Should Pay for Bike Trails: Private Foundations or Taxpayers?

Trails might be getting a little more treacherous for hikers and bikers in Philadelphia. The pool of money that the William Penn Foundation supplied to build a regional trail system has run dry, and the foundation isn't planning on supplying any more. (Read William Penn Foundation: Philadelphia Grants).

In 2010, William Penn awarded a $10 million grant to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission to create regional trails program around the city. That money, which did fund 40 miles of trails, has since been divided among numerous projects, and now there's nothing left.

The foundation has a long history of supporting trail projects, but current staff leaders continue to shift their priorities and their approach to trail funding. When the initial grant was made, Senior Program Officer Andrew Johnson explained that the trails would have more potential if they were viewed as one network, rather than competing separate entities. In spite of this desire for holistic trail oneness, Penn's $10 million was divided among 42 projects.

Now that the money's spent, local advocacy groups like the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia are picking up the slack. Coalition policy director Sarah Clark Stuart is vying for another $10 million over a three-year period. However, she's not knocking on the Penn Foundation's door begging for another check. As a funding alternative, she suggests allocating taxpayer dollars for trail development. “We think that it’s up to the region,” Stuart said. “It’s time for the region to make an investment in itself. We think the first place to look is essentially the transportation capital budget that the region has.”

But will this budgetary request fall upon deaf ears? Considering that the region already lacks adequate money to fix its bridges, trail allocations will undoubtedly be met with resistance.

But don't write off the Penn Foundation for future support. Yet again, the foundation is shifting its approach and expressing interest in providing trail builders with capital funds and technical assistance. Johnson said that the foundation is considering trails “as a platform essentially for reaching thousands of people who are right next to rivers about some sort of water quality message.” He added, “We're actually beginning to focus our grant making specifically on using trails as platforms to build constituency.”

Perhaps if the Bicycle Coalition ties its trail building a little closer to water conservation issues, it may find the financial boost it needs to move forward. Maybe the Coalition can actually finish the project without support from the private sector. Who knows? But it certainly wouldn't hurt.