“[O]ne of the best ways we can improve our quality of life, and promote healthy lifestyles at the same time, is to make our state more walkable and bikeable. In the next year, working with Representative Keeley and Senator Venables, we will launch the First State Trails and Pathways Plan. I am proposing that we dedicate $13 million to build miles of new and enhanced trails throughout our State for every Delawarean to enjoy. Building on the strong foundation of existing trails and greenways already in place, we can make Delaware one of the most walkable and bikeable states in America…
In a state capital budget of half a billion dollars, the strategic funding for walking and bicycling proposed by Governor Jack Markell in his State of the State speech in January of 2012 might have been a barely noticed line item lost in an enormous and complicated bill. (The “Bike and Pedestrian Improvements” authorization did eventually end up as line 11 on page 84 of the final 95 page bill.) But between January – when Governor Jack Markell made dedicating $13 million for a trail network in Delaware a prominent and very public part of his State of the State speech – and five months later when the Delaware General Assembly Joint Committee on Capital Improvement finally approved a $10.25 million line item as part of DelDOT’s capital budget in a late night vote, it was more than noticed. It was the most controversial item in the whole 95 page bill.
The 12-members of the Delaware General Assembly Joint Committee on Capital Improvement (JCCI) had to approve the state’s capital bill but Governor Markell’s proposal to invest millions in walking and cycling in the bill was contentious right from the start with many legislators. One of the committee members met with the Governor early on and asked “What is your negotiating position on the trail money?” Governor Markell replied “I don’t have a negotiating position. I want it all.”
To prevail, however, the Governor needed allies and, eventually, 7 votes on the JCCI. Fortunately, he had the strongest possible ally in Senator Robert Venables who was not only the author of legislation in 2011 calling for state investment in walking and bicycling, but also the co-chair of the JCCI. Senator Venables was a critical pillar of support for walking and bicycling on the committee.
As winter gave way to spring, Bike Delaware and its allies Sussex Outdoors and Delaware Greenways advocated for the “Bike and Pedestrian Improvements” authorization and counted votes on the JCCI. Right up until the end, the vote was still in doubt. With just one day to go before the critical vote, five members of the committee – Senators Venables, Bunting, Sokola and Hall-Long and Representative Hudson – were solid “yes”es, but seven others had not committed to supporting the funding for bike/ped improvements. On June 21, cyclists traveled to Dover from all over the state and packed the committee room to try to swing the last two needed votes.
Behind the scenes, Representative Valerie Longhurst, one of the General Assembly’s biggest supporters of cycling, was also hard at work. The House Democratic caucus members of the JCCI were the critical missing votes. Although she did not serve on the JCCI, as the House Majority Whip Longhurst held a trusted and influential leadership role in the House Democratic caucus. Along with four of her colleagues – including the House Majority Leader Peter Schwartzkopf – she wrote a letter to Representative Helene Keeley, the other co-chair of the committee, citing the positive economic impact of the Governor’s proposed First State Trails and Pathways Plan and the long-term returns to the state in terms of health, property values and tourism.
Governor Markell was unwavering in his support. The Senate majority caucus on the committee – Senators Venables, Sokola, Bunting and Hall-Long – were unanimously in favor. So was Representative Hudson, who had been the House prime sponsor of Senator Venable’s legislation in 2011. And two out of the three members of the House Democratic leadership team, Representative Longhurst and Representative Schwartzkopf, were on record with their support. On June 21, the JCCI voted unanimously to approve the full $13 million in authorized funding for walking and bicycling. An unstoppable coalition had won an improbable victory.