Recognizing the increased demand sparked by the pandemic, six Iowa trails are getting federal relief money for repairs, renovations, and some expansion.
The COVID-19 Relief Recreational Trails Program was created to offset COVID’s effect on the funding for the State Recreational Trail program, according to Scott Flagg, the program manager for federal and state recreational trails at the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT).
It’s a one-time $5 million fund specifically for projects meant to rebuild, renovate, or repair existing trails.
The federal assistance will be a big boost—in past years, the State Recreational Trail program had $1.5 million in 2019 and only $1 million for 2020.
The $5 million for this program comes from a 2021 federal appropriations bill passed in December to support highway programs impacted by COVID-19. From there, the Iowa Transportation Commission approved the one-time allocation for trail projects.
“We have this huge demand for trails and so the idea was to try to figure out a way to target this money and help as many people as possible,” Flagg said.
The DOT received 83 applications, which Flagg said comes out to about $70 million in work and shows how much interest and need there is for projects like this.
Approved projects include:
- Prairie River Trail System connection from Fort Dodge to Badger,
- reconstruction of American Discovery Trail in George Wyth State Park in the Cedar Falls/Waterloo area,
- rehabilitation of the Sauk Rail Trail from Swan Lake State Park to Kittyhawk Avenue outside of Carroll,
- renovation on the Great Western Trail in Warren County,
- rehabilitation for the Prairie Spring and Prairie Farmer Recreational Trails in Howard County and
- rehabilitation on part of the Raccoon River Valley Trail in Dallas County.
“We’ve been actually actively searching for ways to repair this trail and we just haven’t been able to,” said Jeff Korsmo, director of the Howard County Conservation Board.
The projects on the Prairie Spring and Prairie Farmer Recreational Trails involve redoing the existing asphalt and replacing rusting pipe that’s created a sinkhole alongside the trail. Korsmo said the asphalt and the pipe are more than 20 years old.
Dallas County Conservation Director Mike Wallace said the money they’re getting from the fund will only finance part of the work needed on the Raccoon River Valley Trail.
“It’s harder to find repair dollars and maintenance dollars as opposed to when you’re building or making something brand new,” he said. “There’s more categories of funding out there for new stuff.”
With this money, the conservation board can repair and rehabilitate trail bridges and take care of some resurfacing needs.
“We’re in the process of upgrading that trail system with wider bridges and all that good stuff,” Wallace said. “It’s a trail that has been in place since 1989, so it’s due to be upgraded and enhanced.”
A lot of conservation boards see these long-overdue upgrades as even more important.
Warren County Conservation Director Mark Wilson said the county’s outdoor areas have seen an increase in users, including the Great Western Trail. Before the fund was available, the board planned to do the work anyway, especially because deterioration led to people not using parts of the trail.
“Our hope is that now that people have been forced outside and they’re looking at outdoor activities and opportunities, that we won’t lose those users,” Wilson said.
The trail surface is more than 20 years old and the money from the COVID-19 Relief Recreational Trails Program will allow the county to completely repave the worst sections of the bike trail so visitors have more usable surface.
All three conservation board directors said they’ve seen more people outside enjoying parks and trails.
“People realize that once everybody had become shut-ins and were required to stay inside and social distance, they realized the importance of all of our parks and natural resources,” Korsmo said.
Each application was scored on factors like trail linkages, whether the proposal was for maintaining existing trails, how these plans connected to other state and federal plans, federal compliance, what the funding would be used for, and how a county planned to maintain the renovated trail.
Federal guidance is involved throughout the process, so construction won’t begin on these projects this year.
“We had some really great projects,” Flagg said. “There’s a lot of great projects that are going on throughout the state of Iowa. This is obviously a very competitive process through all of our programs, especially this one.”
Conservation boards are also looking for other grants and avenues of funding to continue this kind of work.
“Trails have become a big thing here in Iowa and especially in northeast Iowa,” Korsmo said. “We’re glad to see that they’re starting to get some attention for the maintenance side of it.”
by Nikoel Hytrek
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