Cedar Rapids officials push more funding for trails, bike lanes

Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization commits to spending 80 percent of funding pot on such projects

CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids city officials say it’s time to talk less about expanding the metro area’s trail system and time to turn piles of trail plans into reality.

As a result, the Cedar Rapids contingent on the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization flexed its muscle this week and committed the agency to spend 80 percent of a funding pot of between $3 million and $4 million a year on  trails and bike lanes on streets. Nearly all of the funds now go to street projects in the metro area.

The planning group board’s vote was 15-4, with the mayors of Fairfax and Robins and representatives from Marion and Hiawatha voting no.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett and council member Monica Vernon, chairwoman of the planning group, led a contingent of Cedar Rapids officials and appointees, two Linn County officials and Cody Crawford, a Marion City Council member, in supporting the trails measure for five years.

None of the local street projects slated in the next few years for the metro group’s funding, which comes from the federal Surface Transportation Program, will be diverted to the new allocation formula that favors trails.

However, 80 percent of the money that returns to the funding pot from street projects that don’t move ahead would be spent for trails.

Come the federal fiscal year 2016, which runs from October 2015 through September 2016, some $4 million plus an additional $3 million in unspent funds are apt to be available for the increased spending on trails and bike lanes.

Vernon said the board was sending an “important message” to the community that the agency is serious about the development of a connected system of trails and bike lanes in the metro area.

“We have trails, but we don’t have a system,” Vernon said. “People think of trails or bike lanes so they can actually get somewhere. They want to bike to work, to shop. That’s why some of us said, ‘We got to pay attention to this.’ ”

Vernon noted, too, that the city of Cedar Rapids is competing to become a Blue Zone community to show its commitment to healthy lifestyles, and a focus on trails fits that effort.

The planning organization’s 2040 transportation plan, she added, points out that the metro area is lacking in trails and bike trails. But she said the metro area can’t wait 30 years to get what it needs in place.

Robins Mayor Ian Cullis, who voted against the shift of money to trails, said such a change didn’t make sense, and he suggested that trail advocates should work to tap private donations to help beef up the metro area’s trail system.

Mark Powers, Hiawatha’s community development director who also voted no, said now wasn’t the time to shift most of the organization’s money to trails from streets when federal support for street projects is growing smaller and smaller.

“More people use streets than bikes,” Powers said Friday. “We need to maximize what we can for streets.”

Corbett said most local projects only get a modest portion of a project’s overall cost from the planning agency and he found it hard to believe the agency’s member jurisdictions — Cedar Rapids, Marion, Hiawatha, Robins, Fairfax, Ely and Linn County — would stop an important project because of an absence of funds from the planning organization.Tim Mooney, a Marion representative on the board, noted that cities can get pieces of funding from the agency’s pot over a few years that can provide substantial support for local projects. Some street projects won’t get built with the shift of money to trails, Mooney said.

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