With temperatures in the mid-60s Sunday afternoon, bikers take to the Gwynns Falls Trail near Dickeyville in Baltimore. The federal government would direct millions of dollars in transportation dollars to bike trails and paths like the Gwynns Falls under an amendment Sen. Ben Cardin is pushing to include in a much broader bill to fund highway, bridge and road construction. (Doug Kapustin, Baltimore Sun / March 11, 2012)

Baltimore and other Maryland localities would receive millions of dollars in federal money for bicycle trails, scenic pull-offs and street beautification projects as part of a huge, bipartisan transportation bill expected to pass in the U.S. Senate as early as Tuesday.

The provision to protect funding for trails and other "transportation enhancements," as the projects are known, was threatened in an earlier version of the $109 billion highway bill. Now the measure includes the funding and would give local leaders more control over how to use the money, which could bring speedier improvements to the Herring Run and Jones Falls trails in Baltimore.

Preservation of the trail funding is something of a political coup for Sen. Ben Cardin, who waded into one of the more controversial aspects of the transportation legislation and managed to appease both skeptics and bicyclists, who say trails often take a back seat to road maintenance and transit. The provision would still require approval in the Republican-led House of Representatives.

Maryland received $12.3 million for the projects in 2010 out of $886 million available nationwide.

"It offers cities a fair shot at getting these resources and making sure they're used for the beneficial purposes the programs have supported in the past," Kevin Mills, vice president of policy and trail development at the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Washington, said of the provision.

He said Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, "mitigated some of the most glaring problems" with the bill "in a way that navigated treacherous waters of disagreement."

The provision is tucked into the large two-year bill that funds highway and bridge repair. Congress must pass the legislation by the end of the month or risk disrupting construction projects and suspending the collection of federal gas taxes in the middle of the nation's fragile economic recovery.

Some bike riders in Baltimore say the money would be a good investment.

"If it makes it easier, I think that's going to mean fewer people on the road commuting," said Elizabeth Hazel, a 32-year-old Hampden woman who said she uses the trails recreationally. "It also just makes the city a nicer place to live — it just increases the livability of the city."

In past years, the federal money has been used to help build the 15-mile Gwynns Falls Trail in Baltimore and extend the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad trail, familiarly known as the Ma & Pa, in Harford County.

Baltimore officials said they hope future funds will help pay to extend the Jones Falls Trail from Cylburn Arboretum to the Mount Washington light rail station and begin improvements to the Herring Run trail.

The number of people commuting by bike in Baltimore has risen by 40 percent over the past three years, according to estimates from the city's transportation department. It's not clear how many of those riders are using trails and how many are commuting on local streets.

The enhancement program has faced scrutiny in Congress. Republicans such as Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn have highlighted examples like a $3.4 million tunnel built to allow turtles to cross a busy Florida highway. More broadly, opponents say state officials should be able to decide where to spend federal transportation dollars rather than being forced to set aside a portion for trails and other enhancements.

State control over the funding is particularly important as governors wrestle to balance state budgets and meet the maintenance needs of aging roads and bridges, opponents say.

"A lot of organizations go to the national level to second-guess the decisions made at the state level," said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Horsley said his organization supports the broader legislation, but he added that he is worried Cardin's trails provision will "create an administrative nightmare."

Under current law, state transportation agencies are required to set aside about 2 percent of their overall federal transportation money for the alternative transportation projects, which can also include building bicycle facilities, mitigating the environmental impact of roads — such as by capturing polluted storm-water runoff — and roadside landscaping.

The Senate version of the transportation bill would make many more types of projects eligible for the money. The legislation also allows states to redirect some of the funding for other uses — such as road maintenance — if it is not being spent quickly enough for its original purpose.

Cardin and others said that provision would create a perverse incentive for state highway agencies to save the money so that they could spend it elsewhere.

"In tough budget times, the temptation might well be there to hoard these dollars and use them for other purposes," said Cardin, who said that state and local officials in Maryland have historically worked well together on using the money for its intended purposes.