In January, when Gov. Eric Holcomb announced in his State of the State address that he has earmarked $29.5 million for the development of the Monon South Trail, he did more than launch a new recreational pathway through southern Indiana. He gave Hoosiers a vehicle for economic impact, connected communities and improved health. 

Stretching 62.3 miles through Floyd, Clark, Washington, Orange and Lawrence counties, the Monon South Trail will allow trail users to travel from community to community and enjoy the countryside, forests and farmland along the route of the historic Monon Railroad. The investment comes as part of the state’s $150 million Next Level Trails program, which is allowing communities and regions across Indiana to add and improve pedestrian and bike trails for the sake of connectivity, recreation and tourism. 

Based on recent history, the new trail will be well used. In a state that has thousands of miles of recreational trails, a May 2020 study by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources found that trail use has increased every year since 2017. The reasons for this increase are clear: Trails create connections to people and places and enhance quality of life by providing access to the outdoors, recreation, exercise, transportation, jobs, schools, retail and restaurants.

For these reasons, trails have become a major attraction across the nation, with communities and states reporting millions of dollars in tourist spending. For example, tourism along the Great Allegheny Passage, which runs through Pennsylvania, helped to generate more than $121 million in economic impact in 2019, and the 2019 Active Transportation Transforms America report from the Rails to Trails Conservancy pointed to billions of dollars of economic benefits from spending by trail users and reduced fuel costs, carbon emissions and traffic congestion. 

Experience with the Indianapolis Cultural Trail: A Legacy of Gene and Marilyn Glick brings such economic benefits home. According to a study by the Indiana University Public Policy Institute, with the improved connections among neighborhoods and access to businesses and amenities created by the Cultural Trail, property values within 500 feet of the trail increased 148% between 2008 and 2014, and businesses along the trail reported increases in revenue, customer traffic and jobs. 

Trails also deliver considerable health benefits, with numerous studies documenting the positive impact trails have on cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity as well as mental health concerns. Such health improvements come with their own economic impact: A 2019 Washington State study notes that every dollar invested in trails saves estimated $2.94 in healthcare costs. 

Most encouraging is the fact that many of the people taking advantage of these benefits are the ones who need them most. For example, independent nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics cites a study showing that nearly a quarter of surveyed trail users did not exercise regularly before using trails. Similarly, another study found that trails in Missouri resulted in “increased exercise particularly among people most at risk for inactivity: those who were not already walkers, have a high school education or less, or who earn less than $15,000 a year.”

Impact like that is a key rationale for the over $100 million currently being invested in central Indiana’s trails, including Mayor Joe Hogsett’s $25 million investment as part of his Circle City Forward initiative, the Central Indiana Community Foundation’s Connected Communities Initiative and the State’s Next Level Trails program. It’s why we are expanding the Indianapolis Cultural Trail along South Street and Indiana Avenue. And it’s why we’re seeing public-private partnerships and the philanthropic and corporate communities coming together to invest in trails. 

With so many economic, quality-of-life and health benefits, it’s obvious why Indiana and its communities of all sizes invest in trails, and why foundations and philanthropists are so attracted to trail development. It’s because trails create connections, provide access and improve lives, and more trail miles lead to a better life for all of us. 

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