A bipartisan group of Indiana lawmakers wants Gov. Eric Holcomb to reconsider his decision to freeze and then eliminate a $30 million grant that was to fund an expansion of Indiana’s network of hiking and walking trails.
The lawmakers, in a letter sent May 28 but made public Thursday, said that Indiana has seen a surge in Hoosiers using the trail system during the spread of COVID-19 and the money should be seen as a critical response to the pandemic.
“We are all painfully aware of the negative impacts on health and economy caused by the current pandemic and appreciate your leadership during these challenging times, which require thoughtful allocation of state resources to keep our Hoosiers safe,” the lawmakers –Rep. Carey Hamilton, D-Indianapolis, Rep. Anthony Cook, R-Cicero, and state Sens. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, and Eddie Melton, D-Gary—said in the letter.
The funding was for the second phase of the Next Level Trails program but Holcomb froze the project in March and then on May 22 eliminated the funds as the state felt the full effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state was under a stay-at-home order from March through May and is only now opening up for business and other activities. State revenue collections have fallen about $1 billion short of expectations as Hoosiers lost jobs and consumer spending shrunk.
“The decision to not move forward with additional Next Level Trails was not made lightly,” said Rachel Hoffmeyer, Holcomb’s press secretary, in a written statement. “Gov. Holcomb has been a champion for expanding and connecting trails and is passionate about improving the quality of life. As revenues fall, resources must be shifted to be able to support essential services.”
Hamilton, who is co-chair of Indiana Legislative Trails Caucus, said that putting money into the trails system is a smart investment.
“Results can be seen almost immediately in Hoosier’s physical and mental health as well as economic benefits in the long-term future,” she said, noting that the projects have an economic benefit as homes and businesses have grown and developed along some of the new trails.
The Nickel Plate Trail in her district was one of the places set to receive funding from the grant. It was to run from Fishers down to the state fair property with the possibility of connecting to the Fall Creek and Monon trails.
Those projects and ones on other communities that had shovel-ready programs will not see trails they had previously planned. Without the grants, the communities cannot fund the projects on their own, Hamilton added.
“People have to be creative on how to spend time outside, and trails are a good way to do that,” Hamilton said. “We know that physical health is good for mental health. Trails are out in nature and exposure in green spaces have been proven to have mental health benefits.”
Rod Weinschank, Greencastle parks and recreation director, said he has seen the benefit of trails in his community.
“This coronavirus has kept people with the mindset that everyone had to stay inside but that is not the case, getting outside to walk is perfect to help with clearing the mind,” he said.
As the governor, Centers for Disease Control and others promoted the use of of local parks, Greencastle has seen the number of visitors nearly double or triple, Weinschank said.
Greencastle wasn’t eligible in the first round of funding for the Next Level Trails, but Mayor Bill Dory had applied to be included in the second or third round.
Taylor Dixon is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.