Article by Laura Brown
Answering growing demand for alternatives to car based transportation and potential improvements to public health and quality of life, Connecticut has vowed to invest billions of dollars in new transportation infrastructure, including $100 million on pedestrian and bicycle paths. While interest in multi-use trails is growing, they can be expensive to build (estimated $1,000,000 per mile) and community leaders are often asked to quantify the health and quality of life benefits. This was the case for a group of community leaders along the Naugatuck River Greenway (NRG), a proposed 44-mile multi-use trail that will run through eleven communities from Derby to Torrington when fully built. Committee members wanted to know: Who uses trails? How and when do people use trails? How much are people spending when they use the trail? What are other potential economic, public health, and quality of life impacts? What can we learn from other trails in our region? How can the trail support brownfield remediation?
In 2016, UConn Extension Educator Laura Brown partnered with the UConn School of Business Center for Community Economic Analysis, the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments and the Naugatuck River Greenways Council on a multi-year research project to quantify the potential economic impacts of constructing the NRG, and provide recommendations to municipalities on how to maximize impacts during and after trail construction.
The study involved a literature review, collecting trail count data using infrared counters, a trail user intercept survey on five existing sections of the trail, three focus groups with trail administrators, local business owners, public health professionals along a similar fully built trail, and deployment of a Regional Economic Impact Model (REMI) analysis to estimate total economic impacts of the proposed trail. The analysis included estimates of construction costs, operating expenditures, user amenity benefits, user expenditures, as well as potential impacts on population, employment, income, and fiscal impacts. Reports from the study can be found at http://s.uconn.edu/nrg
The findings of the study showed that this trail, when fully constructed, could have a significant and positive impact on communities in the region. But, those impacts aren’t inevitable even if the trail is built. Trails have to be used, promoted, maintained, and the community, both residents and businesses must be engaged in using and developing the trail. The greatest potential economic impact would result from increased consumer spending by users as well as costs of construction, expansion and maintenance. Currently trail users are spending about $5.8 million annually on items related to trail use (including gear, rentals, clothes, and food) and this could rise to about $85.2 million by 2030 when the trail is fully built. Direct construction expenditures may reach $77.2 million by the year 2030.
Consumer surplus and health benefits also accrued significant economic value over time, including benefits to residents who don’t even use the trail or live in the same zip code as a trailhead. Consumer surplus describes the difference between how much people might be willing to pay to use the trail and how much they actually pay. This includes costs that are avoided like paying for gas to drive to a trailhead or for medical care as a result of health problems. Residents within closest proximity to trailheads and those nearby are expected to realize a combined annual consumer surplus of $13.8 million. That would be expected to rise to about $90.7 million by 2030 when the trail is fully built.
The more people that use the trail, the greater the economic benefit will be. Many users walk or bike on the trail often enough to realize health benefits by reducing incidents of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. The net present monetized value of health-related benefits would be expected to increase from about $10.4 million currently to $71.1 million in 2030.
The study has yielded other benefits beyond the impact numbers. As a result of the project, many other trail groups expressed interest in gathering data on their own trails to better understand their users and make better investments. UConn Extension partnered with the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments and received a $62,000 recreational trails grant from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to expand the study to 15 other trails around the state, a project called the CT Trail Census.
 LetsGoCT. Connecticut’s Bold Vision for a Transportation Future. (2015). Retrieved November 15, 2016 at http://www.governor.ct.gov/malloy/lib/malloy/2015.02.18_CTDOT_30_YR_Vision.pdf