Congressman Lee Zeldin (NY-01)
This op-ed was originally published in the Long Island Exchange.
On the East End of Long Island, we are blessed with so many natural treasures, including our world-renowned parks and beaches, many of which are connected through our scenic biking and hiking trails. Long Island’s trails are an important part of our local community and economy. Trails connect our community and visitors to our beaches, parks, local farms, festivals, wineries, restaurants, and other destinations, and provide an option of healthy recreational activity for residents. In addition to improving quality of life and livability, trails help protect our environment through conservation and by reducing traffic and pollution.
In Congress, I have been working to help grow our increasing network of trails here on Long Island through the Rails to Trails Conservancy, an effort that began well over 30 years ago. In 1983, Congress acted through the National Trails Systems Act to authorize the preservation of decommissioned railroad tracks for the creation of recreational trails for bicycling and hiking. The law allows railroads to donate or sell unprofitable rail lines for the purpose of preservation to local governments or nonprofits for the creation of a trail. This landmark law came in response to public concern over the large amount of abandoned railroad tracks being left behind by the struggling railroad industry following deregulation through the 1980 Staggers Rail Act and the subsequent discontinuation of unprofitable routes. In the early 1980s, between 4,000 to 8,000 miles of unprofitable rail lines were abandoned each year. The Rails to Trails Conservancy has made great progress in protecting and preserving our land for recreation and transportation purposes, which in turn helps grow our economy and improve our quality of life and environment. Back in 1986, after this law was enacted, there were only 250 miles of rail to trail conversions. Now, as a result of the National Trails Systems Act, there have been more than 21,000 miles of rail to trails conversions. We must continue this progress.
Over the past 18 months, I have been working as part of a bipartisan coalition in Congress to protect our parks and expand our growing network of trails. Beginning last year, and on a bipartisan basis, I have been working to secure funding for Rails to Trails projects to continue the preservation of discontinued LIRR tracks for the use of bicycle and hiking trails. Also, in December of 2015, Congress passed the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act (H.R. 2029), which successfully saved the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) after the previous Congress had allowed this program to lapse. This important legislation protected critical funding that is used to preserve parks, beaches, trails, and other outdoor recreation sites through the LWCF. Through grants targeted at the local level, the LWCF has funded over 75 parks in Suffolk County alone. Additionally, within the 2015 Surface Transportation Bill, I acted on a bipartisan basis to help secure $835 million in annual funding, which will increase to $850 million by 2020, for the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), key funding to improve walkability and bicycle access on Long Island. In 2014 alone, the First Congressional District received $4.8 million in federal matching funds through this program, which is used to construct new recreational trails and bike lanes, and to maintain and improve the ones already on Long Island. This funding also supports the Safe Routes to School Program, which helps school districts repair cracked sidewalks, unsafe intersections, and bike lanes that local students rely upon.
It is important to protect and preserve our natural resources and aid our growing network of trails on Long Island. There is much more work still ahead and I will continue my work in Washington, DC to lead the effort.
Congressman Lee Zeldin, member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, represents the First Congressional District of New York.