Pennsylvania Legacies #188: TIPping Point

photo: Montgomery County Planning Commission (CC BY-SA 2.0)

photo: Montgomery County Planning Commission (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 will deliver unprecedented federal funding for alternative transportation by way of the Carbon Reduction Program. What might that mean for southeastern PA’s Circuit Trails initiative? We discuss with Matthew Edmond of the Montgomery County Planning Commission.

Josh Raulerson (00:01):

It’s Friday, March 31st, 2023. I’m Josh Raulerson, and this is Pennsylvania Legacies, the podcast from the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. When Montgomery County first got into the trails business back in the 1970s, trails were seen as recreational assets. One of the perks of living or working in a community that could afford them and not much else. At the time, it made sense to take on project’s piecemeal and fund them using a patchwork of local, state and foundation money. Whatever was available. That approach worked well for decades across greater Philadelphia — so well that, by now, much of the so-called low-hanging fruit has been harvested, and trail investments are increasingly subject to the law of diminishing returns. Meanwhile, a lot’s changed since the seventies — thanks, in part, to those pioneering trail development efforts. These days, trails are considered a must have, not just for their impact on local quality of life, but as economic drivers in their own right. And especially in the most urbanized parts of the state,

Josh Raulerson (01:00):

Trails have become more and more integral to transportation networks. This was all happening well before passage of the Federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021. But that unprecedented infusion of federal dollars into alternative transportation comes at an especially opportune moment for places like Montgomery County and its neighbors. Right now, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission is getting ready for the two-year update to its Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), which determines how federal transportation money will be spent in the region over the next 12 years. In the past, that spending has tilted heavily toward road projects, as you might expect, but with the introduction of brand new funding sources under the infrastructure law, in particular, the Carbon Reduction Program, there’s now an opportunity to take the Circuit Trails to a whole new level. After all, when it comes to carbon neutral transportation options, nothing beats a good trail system. Matthew Edmond, with the Montgomery County Planning Commission, has been exploring the idea of using CARBON funds to bite off much bigger chunks of trail development throughout the Circuit Trails region. He’s our guest on this episode to explain how. Matt, welcome.

Matthew Edmond (02:11):

Great, thank you, Josh. Good to be here.

Josh Raulerson (02:12):

Tell me a little bit about your job as it relates to the Circuit Trails initiative and more broadly, to transportation around your region and… reducing carbon emissions within that space.

Matthew Edmond (02:25):

Yeah, sure. So as you said, my name is Matthew Edmond. I’m the Assistant Director of Transportation and Long Range Planning here at the Montgomery County Planning Commission, Southeast PA, just outside of Philadelphia. I’ve been here at the Planning Commission for almost 19 years doing transportation. And so one of the things that is essential to our office and my role is to be involved in our region’s programming of federal and state transportation money. And that covers everything from highways to local roads to sidewalks and trails. I get, get my hands dirty in lots of different types of projects. Some of these are initiated by the county itself. We own roads, we own bridges. Other things are initiated by our municipalities, others by PennDOT or by studies that, that come out looking at different things to, to do to our system to improve it.

Matthew Edmond (03:14):

And so I’ve been involved in a number of of updates of our, of our regional budget for federal and state transportation line. It’s called the TIP Stands for Transportation Improvement Program. And so we often fund some of our regional circuit trails through that. We also have staff here at our agency that that’s their job is to plan out our circuit trails and find ways to fund them and manage them. And so I work with them too. And, and trails are, are interesting, Josh, right because, you know, they’re transportation, but they’re more than transportation. And so when I first started my career, they were seen as recreational. Now they’re seen as a transportation asset, which is a good thing. There’s funding for that. And so I have my hands and not just, you know, the roads and transit and, and sidewalks, but also in trails. And so I’ve been working with our trail folks to help plan and program their efforts to get circuit trails built in Montgomery County.

Josh Raulerson (04:04):

So how have you historically worked with the state, with PennDOT and with, you know, I guess your other partners and stakeholders in the region toward trail construction? Again, as, as you said, in this environment that’s been shifting gradually from a recreation focus to more toward transportation as such?

Matthew Edmond (04:21):

Yeah. Well, I mean, Montgomery County has done a lot for our Circuit Trails over maybe the last 35, 40 years. We were one of the first ones in the region to start building trails. It’s called the Schuylkill River Trail. It’s nationally known, nationally recognized, goes from Philadelphia all the way out to Reading. And there’s been one or two gaps in the last five years that we’ve been trying to fill. And another partner county’s been trying to fill, and we’re almost done. So Montgomery County has, has done a lot to, to build these things out over time and the importance of, of trying to put these things together and, and piece ’em together. We built that, we built the Pennypack Trail recently, which will connect to Bucks County and comes out of Philadelphia. We built the Perkiomen Trail maybe 20, 25 years ago.

Matthew Edmond (05:04):

That was part of it too. And for the most part, we’ve done these things on our own with our own money. Occasionally we’ve tapped into federal and state funds to, to build them, but for the most part, we’ve, and I’m proud to say we’ve put our money where our mouth is using our own capital budget, using money that we raised just from our, our usual revenue sources. So we’ve really made that an investment. But over time it’s getting harder and harder to do more Circuit Ttrails. A lot of the easier trails have been done. And so, you know, now you’re dealing with utilities more often and railroads more often. You’re dealing with homeowners more often. And so one of the things that we’re finding is that the trail segments we need to do cost more money than they have in the past. And so you know, using regional, federal and, and state transportation funding might be the way to go to do this rather than recreation grants or or capital budget money.

Josh Raulerson (05:55):

Can you explain a little bit more about that sort of economy of scale and why is it that that a county or, or particularly Montgomery County, is so well positioned to, you know, to do these kinds of more ambitious things, perhaps more efficiently?

Matthew Edmond (06:06):

Yeah. Well, you know, every region has a mix of different cities and counties, right? And they all have different things in them that, that raise tax revenue or different assets or different infrastructure. You know, in our region, Montgomery County is very fortunate that we are the second most populous county in the region behind Philadelphia. And actually we’re the third most populous in the entire state of Pennsylvania. Philly’s number one, Allegheny is number two, and then Montgomery County is number three with about 856,000 people. We’re actually larger in population than four states. So we, we have a lot of human capital here in our county. And as a result, we also have a lot of economic capital. We have King of Prussia, which is a, a mega regional center, and the third largest employment center in our region behind only Center City Philadelphia, and University City in Philadelphia, which is where University of Pennsylvania. King of Prussia Is a, a major economic engine.

Matthew Edmond (07:00):

And it’s all contained here within Montgomery County. We have lots of other business parks. We have a lot of industry in different parts of the county. And a lot of that is created because we have more transportation assets than probably any of the other counties besides maybe Philadelphia, where a lot of this stuff meets. We have numerous major interstate highways. We have non interstate highways. We have seven regional rail lines in the septic system. We have about 50 different bus routes about 45 rail stations. We have the Northtown high speed line, which is sort of like light rail. So we have a lot of these things that, that has have been here and have developed really as sort of the crossroads of our region. So that makes for fertile ground for trails because you have electric lines and electric corridors and, and old rail corridors and, and places that you’re able to, to sneak trails through. So we’ve been very fortunate, you know, having, having everything, having grown up the way they did with all these assets it lends themselves to good places to either want to go buy trail or to actually put a trail into, to get to that place you want to go.

Josh Raulerson (08:03):

And so here we are in 2023, obviously you guys, you have this track record, you have been doing this for a while, know what you’re doing, and now all of this federal money is about to hit the streets. What’s special about the moment we’re in and what are you trying to do to take advantage of it to maximum effect?

Matthew Edmond (08:19):

Yeah, so what, what, what’s special is that the I’m gonna throw some acronyms out here. Alright, so the IIJA, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act — it’s also known by another name, another acronym because federal government loves acronyms, don’t we all — the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, BIL, so I’ll just call it the BIL from here on out. But that was the 1.2 trillion infrastructure law that was passed in November of 2021. And everyone talks about it, rightly so, as a transformative investment in our system. It’s important to note that a lot of that carries over and increases funding for all sorts of transportation and infrastructure needs that the federal government’s been funding for decades, right? So it increased our base levels a lot, but it also introduced a couple of new funding programs.

Matthew Edmond (09:07):

And, you know, as I’ve looked over the BIL I have noticed that, you know, in addition to, to reauthorizing stuff that’s already there, Congress really put an emphasis on alternative transportation in that bill. There’s a couple of new pots of money that really are meant to fund those sorts of things. You know energy efficiency and emissions reduction there, there’s a lot of emphasis on that. Those are the real winners in the B I l I think intercity Rail as well, but we’re not gonna get into that today because this is a, a trail podcast. So but those are like the big winners here. So one of those pots of money is called the Carbon Reduction Program. And so that’s going to put about 6.4, 6.5 billion into our national economy over the next five years. And that is meant to reduce emissions on the transportation side. And so that’s where we think trails may come in with a possible new source of funding that we could use to, to expand our trail networks throughout the Commonwealth.

Josh Raulerson (10:01):

I mean, what kind of impact are you anticipating that, that that would have? Like, what is the potential for trails to really reduce the carbon footprint for transportation in your county?

Matthew Edmond (10:11):

You know, it, it’s been hard to measure so far. We have trail counters out all around our county and all around our region. And we find that some of the heavily, most heavily used trails you might have a couple thousand people using them per day on some of the lesser ones, you might have several hundred. You know, for what it’s worth, those are taking people off the roads. If those people have shifted to how they get around then, you know, that’s a, a benefit. It, it’s really hard to, to measure that sort of thing. But here in Montgomery County, regardless, we tend to believe that it’s important for people that have choices how they want to get around. So whether they’re using a trail to recreate or whether they’re using a trail to, to get to a job or to run an errand or to go somewhere in particular for a certain chore you know, it’s still, it’s still getting people to shift and to do something different that is carbon free or reduced. So we still see benefit to, to doing that, and we wanna see our circuit trails expanded because we wanna give people those choices on how they want to get around.

Josh Raulerson (11:09):

So looking at the piece of that that includes people trying to get to work, where is your workforce commuting to? Are they mainly close to home? Are they going into the city or what, and how does that connect with the the larger Circuit initiative?

Matthew Edmond (11:22):

Yeah, our, our workforce is everywhere. They’re, they’re starting and everywhere and they’re going everywhere. And what we find is that Montgomery County actually is a net importer of jobs. More people are coming into our county to work than are coming out of our county to our, our our surrounding neighbors. And so we’ve seen the Chuka River Trail in particular help to facilitate that a little bit. I don’t have any solid numbers about, you know, who’s using it to commute per se versus recreation. But I can tell you that the Schuylkill River Trail follows a, a SEPTA regional rail line that has grown tremendously over the last 15 years. And along that rail line, you know, it starts in Center City Philadelphia and hits some really important employment sectors. It comes out to Manayunk, which is a very important and fashionable and growing neighborhood in Northwest Philly.

Matthew Edmond (12:10):

It continues on hits Conshohocken, which you know, is, is a borough. It’s just another riverfront borough. But they’ve transformed themselves into a, a, a real urban employment center. They have, you know, 15 story buildings residential and office and everything. They’ve really grown up along the river. And then Norristown, which is the county seat where, which is where I work and all of those places and some others in between they are mass and economic engines for Montgomery County and the Schuylkill River Trail goes right through them. So just yesterday we actually had a ribbon cutting for the Chester Valley Trail. That’s the second most heavily used trail in our region. It comes out of Exton and Chester County, which is another big employment center, and it comes up into Norristown, connects with the Schuylkill River River Trail. And so we’re confident that we’re gonna see people doing more work commuting, because now they actually have trail connections that get you all throughout the region to connect all these employment and and residential centers.

Josh Raulerson (13:02):

What needs to happen specifically with the TIP this year to make all this come to fruition? What are you focusing on?

Matthew Edmond (13:08):

Yeah, so here in Southeastern PA our our MPO, Metropolitan Planning Organization, they do the, the, the planning for the entire region. And there’s specific federal things that an MPO has to do. One of them is is update the TIP. They have to work with PennDOT and they have to update the TIP to make sure that we have the projects we want in there. And then all their modern costs are in there. And it’s a 12 year TIP. And the TIP, like I said, is really just a budget. It’s a federal and state transportation budget. It covers 12 years, so everything has to be funded within those 12 years. And you know, other places you know, or other states particularly, they might update it every three years or four years. Pennsylvania, we tend to do it every two years in conjunction with PennDOT central office in Harrisburg.

Matthew Edmond (13:53):

So we’ll be doing that again this year. And with CARBON money now coming into our region, we have about 52 and a half million dollars of CARBON money spread out over the next four years, 20 million in the, the year we’re in. And then 10 million each of the three years after that. And so we need to start thinking in our region about what we do with that money. CARBON is extremely flexible in what it it provides for, right? The only thing that it doesn’t provide for is expanding your roadway network, cuz that, you know, would, would probably add emissions to your air. So Carbon Reduction Program, or CARBON, as we call it, is not for that. But it’s for a lot of things that the TIP already funds and that are federal government already funds you know, public transit is eligible for this money sidewalks and, and bike lanes are eligible for this money.

Matthew Edmond (14:41):

ITS, which is called Intelligent Transportation Systems, if you’ve ever been on say you know, the blue route here in in our region in southeast PA, they have these little they’re almost like mini traffic lights at certain on-ramps, you know, that meter traffic to go in, that’s part of what we call ITS, Intelligent Transportation Systems. Or if you’ve been to other regions in America where you know, they have a, a shoulder that opens at a certain point and overhead things and they, they allow you to use a shoulder at certain times. That’s ITS as well. That’s funded through CARBON. Congestion pricing, charging and fueling infrastructure for electric vehicles and other types of things, like all that’s covered under carbon. And one of the things that CARBON also covers is trails. And so this gives us the opportunity now to think as, at least as a region down here is we plan for our next tip to start debating, you know, do we want to use this money to improve our trail system, to expand the Circuit?

Matthew Edmond (15:35):

It gives us an opportunity we didn’t have before because there’s other pots of money that we can use for trails and we’re using them for trails here and there. But we’re also using them for other things too, sidewalks and transit. And so for, for carbon, it’s, like I said, it’s a brand new pot of money. It’s probably going to continue past those initial four or five years. Because, you know, Congress tends to re-up these things every so often. They rarely ever cut programs. So we need to start thinking both the short term, the medium, and the long term, you know, should this money go towards trail building, we have a a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take a significant amount of money and do something innovative with it.

Josh Raulerson (16:12):

When you think about the opportunity, and a lot of the time we’re just talking about infrastructure, like get the trail miles built…. I mean, is that kind of the main focus? Is there kind of a, “if you build it, they will come” approach, or do you actually also account for, you know, engagement and programming and actually getting people on the trails and making trails a part of people’s daily life? Is that part of the thinking?

Matthew Edmond (16:32):

Yeah, I mean, we, we do all that, Josh, you know, at the county level. Our trail planners are always engaging people about, you know, using the trail and, and what new trails we wanna build. We have trails in the Circuit you know, that, that we’re pursuing, that we’ve done studies on that we go out to public meetings on. And our Parks department actually, they have a piece of that as well where they go out in the community and, you know, they publicize the trails and, and try to encourage people to do it. So, you know, we’re, we’re always out there trying to do all of those different pieces together. And yeah, there’s probably a level to it, which if you build it, they will come. I mean, certainly if you don’t build it, they will not come, right? <Laugh>

Matthew Edmond (17:13):

But again, you know, it speaks to what I said before. We really believe that it’s important that we give people opportunities and choices for how they wanna get around and do things. And we’re confident from our experience with other projects trails and, and other things too, roads and sidewalks and things that, yeah, you know, once you have it in there, you may not get everyone using it, but the people who are using it are grateful. They’re glad that they have an opportunity to do it. And you know, people, when they have choices, they decide to make life choices, bigger life choices based around how they can get around. And the trails all feed into that.

Josh Raulerson (17:43):

And you can see how this could really catalyze some exciting things within the Circuit Trails network. You know, one thing that the Coalition has been focusing on, and particularly our PEC staff in Philadelphia has been really active on this, is this kind of project of reconceptualizing what we actually mean by trail “gaps” and how we set priorities to fund different projects. Is it, you know, toward maximum mileage only, or do we also take into consideration socioeconomics… obviously there’s an emphasis on environmental justice in all the federal legislation… where do those come together for you? Is, I mean, is there a, a consideration toward which communities get priority or which project get priority along those lines?

Matthew Edmond (18:23):

Yeah, I, I think for us our biggest priority is connections. You know, we wanna make as many connections as we can between trails that are meant to carry a lot of people. What, what we find, especially in our region, and I suspect this is across the whole state, but I deal with it down here, so I don’t wanna speak for other, other regions, you know, but our municipalities tend to build their own networks. And so we see that as sort of like the, the local roads of the system, you know, and our circuit trails are like the highways or the prince arterials, the ones that we want to be the widest, the ones that we want to carry the most people that connect the most places. And so we’re, we’re in a, a mad rush to, to to, to build out the major routes that we want that get you, you know, from here to here in the county, and then here to here and connect with that and get you over there.

Matthew Edmond (19:10):

So that, that’s really what, what drives us. Like I said, we have the Schuylkill River Trail we built, which goes along the Schuylkill River from Philly all the way out to Pottstown and Reading. We built the Perkiomen trail that goes up in a completely perpendicular direction to the top of our county. Chester Valley Trail now comes in a different perpendicular direction from Chester County into Norristown. And then we built the Pennypack trail out of, of Philadelphia that comes up to Bucks. And so some of the next trails that we want to do are ones that connect those four trails to each other. We built parts of them here and there, and now we want to bring them farther to meet up with another trail. And so that’s, that’s really what we’re after is the connections. And then our municipalities can build all of their local trails and connect to that better, more connective network.

Josh Raulerson (19:53):

Is this approach one that you’re seeing your counterparts and colleagues in other regions, other states, taking? How does this fit with what’s happening across the country?

Matthew Edmond (20:02):

Yeah, I mean, generally that’s, that’s what we’re seeing as well. I, I think our region is one of the more advanced ones from what I’ve seen in terms of building out and organizing, you know, I mean, certainly PEC has been instrumental in helping to get the Circuit Trails become a thing, instead of Montgomery County having our trails, having a unified regional network, common vision. So, you know, I I, I think just having that is probably a leg up on a number of, of, of major metros in, in our, our country. And as far as I can tell, you know, the ones that are, are where we are as well. They’re trying to make the connections to, it’s just like we did with any other system in, in our country’s past, whether it was the railroads, whether it was the highway network, you know, trying to, trying to get the big the big pieces to connect to each other allows everything else to fill in. And so I think that’s generally where transportation is on, on any mode. And trails being the most modern one,

Josh Raulerson (20:55):

You’ve been making this case within the Circuit Trails community highlighting the opportunity and kind of trying to push people in that direction. How has that going so far? What has the response been from, from others within the group?

Matthew Edmond (21:07):

Yeah, you know, Josh, it’s, it’s, it’s been actually very encouraging. We have five counties in our region that make up Southeast PA. And I’d say Philly and Montgomery County have been the ones that traditionally have been the most out in front, most aggressive at building our trails. Chester County in the last decade or so, they’ve, they’ve gotten behind that. They’ve put some resources to it as well. And so the other two, Delaware and Bucks just in the last couple of years, they’ve started to realize that, hey, you know, we have a role to play in this and, and our citizens want these trails built. They, they want to go out, they want a job, they want to get to, you know, their job. They want to have mobility. And so those two counties have, have gotten on board too. And so as I’ve talked to my counterparts in all those other four counties about the possibility of using the TIP or, or using CARBON funding to, to maybe fund some bigger pieces of the Circuit, get some more advanced parts of this system done.

Matthew Edmond (22:00):

They’ve been very receptive about because their, their county leaders have realized that this is important too. And that’s where it all starts, right? It starts with our elected officials. If they believe that that trails are important for quality of life, for mobility, whatever it might be, then that makes a big difference. Because our, our counties in particular, you know, they have substantial budgets and counties do a lot in PA. They fund a lot of things. They tend to have big budgets, and those budgets go to things that everyone needs. But the ones that you know, have, have the vision and say, “Hey, we’ll we’ll put a little bit of our money to doing this,” they can get these things done. And we’re starting to see more of our counties, at least down this corner of the Commonwealth, have been getting behind that vision.

Josh Raulerson (22:37):

So this vision pans out, let’s say over the next few years. What does that look like? How soon would the impacts be really visible? What would you anticipate?

Matthew Edmond (22:45):

Yeah, you know, I, I think so, but I also want to temper expectations too, Josh, Because different parts of the state, it costs different amounts of money to get things built, right? You know, it all comes down to wages. For the most part, what we pay people is usually the bulk of what a, a infrastructure project costs. So whether it be roads or whether it be trails, it doesn’t matter down here to build a mile trails probably gonna cost more than it might, say, in Johnstown or in Erie or somewhere else. So down here our costs tend to be higher. So that’s often one reason why we get more money than other parts of the state. We’re gonna get, like I said, 52 and a half million in CARBON funding the next four years. Other parts of the state aren’t gonna get that much or nearly that much, but that’s okay.

Matthew Edmond (23:24):

It should help them build trails too. But for us, what it allows us to do is maybe build a 15 million dollar trail segment, which might be four to five miles down here. And if we’re talking about a, a Circuit Trails vision that’s 700-some miles, well, you know, doing say <laugh> four projects at, at 15 million each is only gonna get you 20 miles. It’s not gonna necessarily make the Circuit this huge thing that, you know, you wake up in a couple of years, it’s almost built. It’s not gonna get us there. It’s gonna take a long time to really build out the Circuit, but maybe, you know, we can use this money to tackle a really tough piece of the Circuit. One that’s, if a county or municipality just got a 3 million dollar state grant to do, you know, they’d be looking for the other nine or 10 or 11 million and, and who knows where that comes from.

Matthew Edmond (24:11):

And it’s so hard to piece together money to build a project. So if we take a chunk of CARBON and we build a five mile segment, maybe we can make those important connections, get people out moving more, and then again, build even further support for trails because they’ll see more people using it because it’ll get you more places. That’s really the vision we’re after. It’s not that it’s gonna build this whole thing in a day, it’s that it’s, we’re gonna be able to do some of the tough stuff that we otherwise wouldn’t do. It’s also critical to making other parts of the Circuit unlock.

Josh Raulerson (24:39):

Well, we’ll look forward to seeing how it goes. It seems like a wonderful opportunity and I really appreciate you talking me through it. Matt, thank you for being on Pennsylvania Legacies.

Matthew Edmond (24:47):

Thank you very much, Josh for having me.

Josh Raulerson (24:53):

Matthew Edmond is assistant Director of Transportation and long range planning with the Montgomery County Planning Commission and also Executive Director of the Montgomery County Transportation Authority. That’ll do it for this episode of Pennsylvania Legacies. We release new ones every other Friday, so check back in a couple of weeks for the latest release. Until then, check out the PEC website, where you will find links and notes on this episode and many others that we’ve published over the years. You can stream them all right there in your web browser, or if you prefer, subscribe in your podcast app of choice. Until next time, for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, I’m Josh Raulerson and thanks for listening.