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Funding delays could stall bike paths

Funding delays could stall bike paths

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BLOOMINGTON - The League of Illinois Bicyclists and officials from the city of Bloomington and McLean County are concerned that funding delays could put two major bike paths projects on hold.

Ed Barsotti, executive director of the League of Illinois Bicyclists, said he's worried because bike paths have lost out in the past when state transportation officials decided where to make spending cuts.

Area bike paths and a street project vying for about $6.2 million from the Illinois Department of Transportation are:

- An extension of Constitution Trail from Grove Street to Lafayette Street in Bloomington. The city is seeking $1 million from IDOT, said Dean Kohn, Bloomington Parks and Recreation Department director. The city earlier received word federal funds to extend the trail from Lafayette to Hamilton Road would be delayed until 2008.

- A section of the proposed Historic Route 66 Bikeway from Bloomington to McLean. A consortium of local governments submitted two grant requests totaling $3.7 million.

- An additional $1.6 million for the city of Bloomington for a proposed street beautification project on Main Street from Front Street to Locust Street. The plan would continue on the theme set during previous work to install ornamental lightposts, benches, bike racks and other improvements around the courthouse square.

Officials expected IDOT to announce grants by late last year. In December, IDOT's Web site warned of a delay until January.

Four months later, there's still no word.

"We haven't heard anything," said Jeff Tracy, project manager with the McLean County Highway Department, who is involved in the Route 66 project.

IDOT spokesman Matt Vanover said Wednesday no decisions have made.

"It's still going through the normal process," Vanover said.

He declined to speculate when grants may be awarded.

About 40 percent to 50 percent of adults in Illinois say they ride bicycles, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Illinois boasts about 2,500 miles of bike paths.

Barsotti said the funding pinch results from a domino effect that begins in Washington, D.C. Congress passes a transportation bill to authorize the Federal Highway Administration to send a certain amount of money to the states each year.

When pressed to save money later, Congress cuts funding. As a result, the Federal Highway Administration must ask the states to return some cash, he said.

Illinois receives about $1 billion from the federal agency annually. Of that, 2.5 percent, or about $25 million, is earmarked for enhancements, such as bike paths and street beautification, Barsotti said.

In the past two years, IDOT has cut enhancement funds at a rate far higher than other programs, he said citing federal figures. Of $70 million returned in fiscal 2006, $11.6 million was taken enhancements, he said.

Barsotti noted that amount equaled a 45 percent cut, compared to reductions of 4.5 percent in other areas at IDOT. His statewide bike advocacy group fears bike paths will receive the same treatment this year when Illinois must return $40 million.

Barsotti thinks the enhancement fund becomes vulnerable because IDOT has been slow to dole out the money. As a result, the fund appears flush.

Vanover said it now contains about $90 million in funds which are not yet awarded. But, Barsotti said that if IDOT acted more swiftly to disperse the money, the fund would not appear to be so full when the time arrives to send a check to the feds, he said.

Vanover said projects that have been promised funding will receive it. But, he said, it's more practical to take money not earmarked for specific projects already under way.

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