Pennsylvania Legacies #179: A Big Investment

Allegheny County recently announced its largest-ever investment in trails: nearly 22 million dollars in federally-leveraged grants to advance trails and active transportation. Friends of the Riverfront Executive Director Kelsey Ripper joins us to give an insight into the funded projects and their potential impacts.

Last month, we looked at an analysis from the Circuit Trails Coalition in Philadelphia that proposes new ways of thinking about the value of trails — something that isn’t fully reflected in a traditional cost-benefit analysis. The Circuit Trails report quantifies social, public health, and other benefits associated with trail development, to help planners and funders better allocate resources for maximum community impact.

The Erie to Pittsburgh Trail is a system of non-motorized trails, including the Armstrong Trail pictured here, that will eventually connect downtown Pittsburgh to Erie.

That holistic view makes a much more forceful argument for trails than a narrow economic focus. But even if you only care about dollars and cents, investing in trails is still pretty easy to justify. Take the Great Allegheny Passage, way over on the other end of the state. It cost over 530-thousand dollars per mile to build. That may sound like a lot — and to be sure, it’s at the high end of the spectrum even for a long-distance rail trail. But a study published last year estimated more than 800-thousand dollars per mile in annual economic impact along the GAP. In other words, each mile of trail earns about 150 percent of its total construction cost every year. That’s a pretty good return on investment.

It’s no wonder local governments all over Pennsylvania increasingly view trail development funding as money well spent. And now, the Commonwealth’s second-largest county is making its largest-ever investment in trails. Allegheny County announced in September nearly 22 million dollars in federally-leveraged grants to advance trails and active transportation. The impact of those projects will be felt throughout western Pennsylvania, as local trails link up with larger networks extending north to Erie and beyond, and west into Ohio and West Virginia. 

“Personally this is a very exciting time to be involved in trails,” said Kelsey Ripper, Executive Director of Friends of the Riverfront. “To see an investment in trails like this is a game-changer. We have not had this level of investment before, but there have been decades of trail work that have been done to get to this point.”

Pittsburgh’s Friends of the Riverfront works to develop and steward the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, and is among the grantees for the county funding. Friends of the Riverfront will also play a special role in countywide trail and greenspace planning going forward, under a separate grant from DCNR. 

“To see an investment in trails like this is a game-changer.”

Some of the funding is going directly to trail construction, for projects like the Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge. Another significant portion of the funds will help move along the design and engineering of future segments.

“Once we have the design and engineering done, the construction piece is actually a little bit easier, because people are a little bit more willing to fund the construction because it’s that last step,” said Ripper.  

Friends of the Riverfront stewards the Three River Heritage Trail, 33 miles of trail around the Pittsburgh riverfront and surrounding suburbs. Image credit: Friends of the Riverfront.

11 of the 18 grants are going to Three Rivers Heritage Trail network projects that focus on regional connections, including the Erie to Pittsburgh Trail, which is already nearly 70% complete. 

“These long distance trails really bring with them significant economic impact,” said Ripper. 

Funds are also going to more local connections, including those that will help improve equity of transportation access in Allegheny County.

“One of the projects that we’ve been working on for the last few years is the Turtle Creek connector between Rankin and Trafford. There are so many communities in that Turtle Creek valley that don’t have access to transportation, they’re under-resourced, they’re living in environmental justice communities, and so to be able to add a trail amenity that will connect people to jobs and schools and daycare is critical,” said Ripper. 

Next steps for many of these projects will include lots of community engagement, so be on the lookout for updates on how to get involved.