More than roads: Don’t leave trails out of transportation discussion

Roads and public transit are of primary concern as Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Anthony Foxx comes before the U.S. Senate to be considered as the  next Transportation secretary. We should not forget another important responsibility of the Transportation secretary: managing our nation’s extensive system of recreational trails.

Recreational trails are a powerful driver of tourism and rural economies, a means to explore our nation’s natural beauty and an enjoyable form of physical activity.

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Since 1991, Congress has considered the benefits of recreational trails when authoring our nation’s transportation bills. Out of this bipartisan consideration, the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) emerged as an equitable way to fund the nation’s vast system of trails.  

The RTP is a federal grant program that provides funds to the states to develop and maintain recreational trails and related facilities for all recreationists. RTP funds come from excise taxes generated by fuel purchased for off-highway vehicle recreation — snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, off-highway motorcycles and off-highway light trucks.

Because these users pay the federal excise tax, the RTP receives its funding from the federal Highway Trust Fund. However, even at the program’s current funding level, $85 million a year, off-highway-vehicle users are paying significantly more in fuel taxes than the RTP receives to fund trails.

Each state has the flexibility to determine how the RTP grants will be awarded and administered. The only stipulation is that 30 percent of obligated funds must go to motorized trails, 30 percent to non-motorized trails and 40 percent to mixed-use trails.

Since the grant program requires a sponsor, federal, state and private dollars are leveraged to produce the greatest amount of recreational opportunities for hikers, bicyclists, off-highway vehicle users and four-wheelers. Since 1991, the RTP has leveraged less than $700 million in federal funds into more than $1.14 billion dedicated to recreational trails.

Throughout its history, the RTP has proven to be very successful in helping fulfill the needs of recreationists of all types. Despite its bipartisan support in Congress, a diverse constituency and grant programs in nearly every congressional district, the RTP remains in relative policy obscurity. The RTP is simply too important to remain on the back bench.

I cannot stress enough the importance of this program. In my home state of Colorado, outdoor recreation is a $13.2 billion a year industry. Across the country, outdoor recreation generates $646 billion a year in consumer spending and supports 6.1 million direct American jobs that can never be outsourced.

Recreational trails provide cost effective ways for families and friends to get together, recreate and create lasting memories. As Foxx testifies about the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, let’s remember his constituency is not just those who ride and drive trains, planes, trucks, SUVs, automobiles and on-highway motorcycles. It extends beyond traditional users of transportation to include recreationists of all types.

Allard is a former member of the House and Senate from Colorado who now serves as vice president for government relations for the American Motorcyclist Association.