Much of the money would come from people who will use the trail network, both for commuting and recreation. The report estimates trail users would spend $538 million annually on “soft” goods, such as food and beverages, and “hard” goods such a shoes and bikes.
“The current and expanded trail network will enable visitors from communities within the network to travel and patronize shops in neighboring communities that may have been previously less accessible,” the report said.
There are about 479 miles of trails in the Washington region, according to the Capital Trails Coalition. The coalition estimates it would cost just over $1 billion to build an additional 402 miles to complete the network. The project has political support and has been endorsed by the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, but moving forward is complicated because segments of the network are controlled by different jurisdictions.
If completed, almost 4 million people in the region would have trail access within a two miles of their home, according to an analysis by Econsult Solutions, which worked with the Capital Trails Coalition on the report.
According to the report, completing the network would create an estimated 16,100 jobs over the course of the project and generate more than $65 million in state and local taxes. The project also could boost property values in areas where there is convenient access to the network, the report’s authors said.
“What this report really documents in clear and concise terms is what the true impact of such a network will be,” said Neil Albert, president and chief executive of the DowntownDC Business Improvement District and a coalition member. “It really quantifies the economic and environmental benefits of our region’s future.”
The Capital Trails Coalition includes around 70 organizations, including government, environmental and business groups. It was formed in 2015 to advocate for the completion of a regionwide network of trails.
Liz Thorstensen, vice president of trail development for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and chair of the coalition, said completing the network would make, “our region healthier and more economically competitive.” The proposal includes building missing trails in the District and the city of Alexandria as well as Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
The study estimates that residents of the District, Maryland and Virginia would drive 49 million fewer vehicle miles per year because of a new alternative to cars. The project, it said, also could yield $517 million in annual public health savings due to increased physical activity by trail users.
“This shows how by putting this network of trails together, how much it’s going to change our health, our economy, our environment, create thousands of jobs and reduce carbon pollution and smog and give us cleaner air,” said Rep. Don Beyer, (D-Va.).
The report makes the case that trails aren’t only for recreation, but they also play a growing role in the daily commute as a part of the transportation system.
It estimates that improving access to trails would increase the number of people who walk or bike to work by 13.1 percent compared to areas with less access to trail networks. In the D.C. region, that would translate to roughly 13,500 more residents walking or biking to work if the network is fully built out.
Advocates say the pandemic has highlighted the role that trails can play in a community.
A recent survey by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments found that residents said they are likely to continue using trails even after the pandemic is over. More than half of those surveyed said they expected they would walk more, while 26 percent said they expected to bike more.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been traumatic and devastating to many across the globe,” the coalition’s report said. “In an attempt to counteract the uncertainty, isolation and immobility of quarantine, people have turned to walking, running and cycling on trails.”
Advocates said a system of connected trails also would address historic inequities in community planning, ensuring that all residents benefit.
“It’s a matter of equity of making sure that everyone in our region can access sustainable and affordable transportation,” said Kristin Frontiera, development director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, who also is a coalition member.