(09/07/23) BATON ROUGE — For many rural communities, accessing state and federal funds to improve infrastructure such as sidewalks has been difficult and expensive.
Over the past two years, the LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities program has guided small towns through the application process while working with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development to make funding projects possible.
As a result, 11 communities with populations under 5,000 received over $13 million for pedestrian improvements thanks to changes in the state's Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP).
Sidewalks help build a sense of neighborliness, encourage physical activity among residents and are important for wheelchair users, said Jessica Stroope, the AgCenter physical activity specialist.
“You need a safe place to walk,” Stroope said. “In many places, walking on the road itself is dangerous— the traffic is too high. Just having a safe and accessible place to walk is critical.”
The Louisiana TAP is federally funded and administered through the Louisiana DOTD to construct bicycle paths, sidewalks and other non-automobile projects. The program can also fund safety measures like rehabilitating sidewalks or installing high-visibility crosswalks, wheelchair ramps and overhead lighting. These features help people without automobiles, and they also encourage walking.
“It is about being able to have a safe place to walk and get physically active,” Stroope said. “In Louisiana we have some of the worst health outcomes in the country and have some of the lowest levels of physical activity and highest levels of obesity.”
Before this year, communities with fewer than 5,000 residents that received funding through the program had to contribute a 20% cash match and cover design, construction, engineering and inspection costs, which can average 20% of the project cost. Even with TAP funding, a $500,000 sidewalk could still cost them $200,000, Stroope said.
Passed in 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act increased funding for TAP and allowed states more flexibility in administering their TAP programs — including how states structure local community contributions. Stroope learned about the changes and advocated for DOTD to make it more feasible for rural communities to receive TAP funding. Now, communities with fewer than 50,000 residents no longer have to pay for design and construction, engineering and inspection costs. Also, towns under 5,000 will contribute 5% of the total project cost, and communities between 5,000 and 49,999 will contribute 10%.
As the physical activity specialist for the AgCenter, Stroope works on more than just sidewalks. She finds ways to promote activity in rural areas.
“Most of that work focuses on increasing access to physical activity in rural communities,” she said. “Generally, that means improving walkability.”
Stroope has worked with AgCenter agents to create temporary parks and play days for children and helped small libraries build their stocks of outdoor and exercise equipment that people can check out. The Healthy Communities team has also created signage that helps encourage walking or simple exercises in parks.
In October 2022, Stroope hosted the AgCenter Louisiana Rural Complete Streets Summit to help explain changes to TAP and assist rural towns in navigating the TAP application process. All those that attended the summit and submitted a TAP application received funding, including:
Sidewalk construction in rural towns that received TAP funding should be completed in the next two to three years. These projects can provide economic benefits, Stroope said.
“When you walk in your neighborhood, when you walk somewhere in town, you see people that you engage with,” Stroope said. “If your downtown's walkable, people are more likely to stop and shop. You can easily walk down to the shop three doors down, and you don't have to get in your car and go. It's good for community resilience.”
Contact physical activity specialist Jessica Stroope at email@example.com.
The LSU AgCenter facilitates a walk audit in Franklin to help prepare for their Transportation Alternatives Program application. Photo by Justin Lemoine/Atchafalaya National Heritage Area.
Teams from rural communities at work during the Louisiana Rural Complete Streets Summit in October 2022. Photo by Ruthie Losavio/LSU AgCenter.