Walking and Bicycling Trails – The Crossroads of Federal Transportation Policy and Local Recreation Infrastructure

By National Recreation and Park Association | Posted on February 29, 2012

Tags: Funding, Advocacy

Editor’s Note:  NRPA recently asked Mr. Christopher B. Douwes, Trails and Enhancements Manager with the Federal Highway Administration to provide some factual background and insight on the Transportation Enhancements (TE) and Recreational Trails Program (RTP) initiatives and the role they play in promoting active transportation. 

As Congress considers its priorities for 2012; one piece of pressing business is the reauthorization of the Surface Transportation Act.  The current law, known as SAFETEA-LU is set to expire March 31, and the House and Senate have announced plans to debate and vote on their respective reauthorization packages in the coming days and weeks.  

Congress is now considering plans which would effectively eliminate funding for two successful and popular programs, known as TE and the RTP, that benefit recreation through a variety of transportation-related projects such as paths, trails and bicycle facilities.     

What follows is Christopher’s explanation and informative links for learning more about these important programs.

Integrating Transportation and Recreation Infrastructure

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in 1991 established new programs that can benefit recreation and access to recreation: the Recreational Trails Program (RTP), and Transportation Enhancement (TE) Activities. These programs were reauthorized into their current format in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) in 1998, and continued in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) in 2005. SAFETEA-LU expired in September 2009, and these programs have been operating under extension acts; extension #8 expires March 31, 2012. The funds for these programs are apportioned by statutory formula to the States, and the States solicit and select projects for funding.

The RTP provides funds to the States to develop and maintain recreational trails and trail-related facilities for both nonmotorized and motorized recreational trail uses. The RTP funds come from the Federal Highway Trust Fund, and represent a portion of the motor fuel excise tax collected from nonhighway recreational fuel use by snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, off-highway motorcycles, and off-highway light trucks. In most States, a State resource agency (parks and recreation) administers the RTP, and each State develops its own procedures to solicit and select projects. See the State RTP contacts. FY 2012 funding is $85 million (about 0.2% of the Federal-aid highway program). About 1,000 RTP projects are funded annually.

The TE activities offer funding opportunities to help expand transportation choices and enhance the transportation experience through 12 eligible TE activities related to surface transportation, including pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and safety programs, scenic and historic highway programs, landscaping, historic preservation, and environmental mitigation. State Departments of Transportation administer the TE activities, and each State develops its own procedures to solicit and select projects. See the State TE contacts. Some delegate this role to Metropolitan Planning Organizations or State highway districts. FY 2012 funding is about $850 million (about 2% of the Federal-aid highway program). About 1,500 TE projects are funded annually. Perhaps 500 to 1,000 benefit parks and recreation directly or indirectly. Since 1992, 57% of TE projects have benefited nonmotorized transportation, and half of those projects have been for rail-trails or other off-road trails that often benefit recreational use. Other TE categories also benefit parks and recreation, such as rehabilitation of historic bridges or canal towpaths that provide access to recreation areas, and scenic and historic highway programs that tie into recreational facilities.

Learn more about federal policy and legislative issues impacting parks and recreation.