A national advocacy group for recreation trails says the trails' net economic value continues to go up. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy says Wisconsin trails generate as much as $1.5 billion in spending or health care savings every year.
Wisconsin has a long history of converting former railroad corridors to recreation trails. The 32-mile Elroy-Sparta State Trail may be the nation's oldest. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy President Ryan Chao says the state picture remains very good.
"Wisconsin is doing really well. There's a strong, connected trail system in many areas. We see strong usage. There are 98 really established, iconic trails, and also really active walking and biking communities," Chao told WUWM.
Chao's group has just issued its first report in a decade on the economic value of trails, adding trail-related spending and health care savings. He says the figure nationally is $34 billion. In Wisconsin it's $1.5 billion. He says the health numbers are based on applying Centers for Disease Control estimates on the cost savings of increased physical activity to a federal travel survey indicating that 10% of the population meet physical activity guidelines through walking and biking.
Chao says the Conservancy took a conservative financial approach to its health data.
"I think if anything, we might be lowballing it a bit. But I think really in many ways, it offsets one of the biggest costs we absorb as a society," Chao said.
Chao says trailside spending includes money spent at restaurants, bike shops and other retail establishments. He says the Conservancy did not add in places where trails have prompted new businesses to pop up.
The Conservancy expects more financial gains for southeastern Wisconsin as the Route of the Badger is completed. That's the 700-mile regional trail network planned from Sheboygan to Kenosha, and Milwaukee to Dousman.
Project Manager Willie Karidis says about half of the trails are already built: "Still have more to go, but we're starting to see completions of trail segments all over the seven counties."
Noel Kegel, of the bicycle stores Wheel and Sprocket, says it's no longer a case of having to sell communities on trails.
"People, I think, get it now. The question is, 'How do we get it done?' Not, 'Why do we need this?' " Kegel said.
The Rails to Trails Conservancy hopes Congress will come up with more trail money as a federal transportation bill is debated in the next few months.