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The Path to Nationwide Trail Funding: Preparing to Reach the Summit

The fundamental challenge is to mobilize trails groups in support of a common goal: funding for the Recreational Trails Program.

By Roy W. Muth

"Who are the natural constituencies for the trails funding program?"

During its first three years of operation, the National Recreational Trails Funding Program has not compiled an impressive track record when measured in terms of funds allocated to the states. Lack of appropriations for FY/92 was accepted because the authorizing legislation was not signed until December, 1991. Appropriating committees in both houses had already completed their work on the transportation bill.

Trail interests did not begin to organize until January, 1992. By the time they developed a plan of action, ap-propriating committees started making decisions on FY 93 funding. Thanks to the leadership of the bill's sponsors, $7.5 million was appropriated. Allocations to states were made. A variety of motorized, non-motorized and diversified-use trails were built and maintained.

The prospects for FY 94 looked excellent, appearing that the appropriation would be doubled to $15 million. However, a technicality raised during the conference on the transportation bill resulted in the decision to provide no funding. From the standpoint of those private and public organizations anticipating continued financial support, this was a surprising setback.

If there is anything good that comes out of failure, it's the motivation to rejoin the debate and seek a better outcome. Usually, the first step is to analyze why success was not achieved and then make the appropriate corrections. This process has produced two conclusions: (1) the original authorizing legislation was flawed, and (2) the program's natural constituencies have not lobbied effectively enough. The Coalition for Recreational Trails (CRT) is working on both problems.

It is useful to recall that the National Recreational Trails Funding Program was originally intended to be administered by the Department of the Interior. However, during the closing minutes of the conference on this part of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), it was decided that the program would be administered by the Department of Transportation. In the process, certain changes to the text that would have been appropriate for a transportation bill were not made.

The existing law gives the trails funding program budget authority. What should have been provided is contract authority. which greatly simplifies the appropriations process. CRT is seeking an amendment that would make this change.

Who are the natural constituencies for the trails funding program? Potentially, the largest and most effective from a political standpoint are the private and public organizations which are eligible for grants. Next are the state trails advisory boards and the hundreds of thousands of trails users they represent. By extension, the National Recreational Trails Advisory Committee's members have a vested interest in funding and must also play an active advocacy role. (The committee as a body is prohibited from lobbying for funding.) In addition, there are those federal and state officials who are administering the program. Last, but not least, is the recreation industry which counts on the trails infrastructure for the use of its products. Collectively, this is a formidable group which has power in terms of both votes and money.

The fundamental challenge is to mobilize these groups in support of a common goal. In this particular case, the goal, trails funding, is simple and easily understood. The difficult part is to provide sufficient information and education so that all trail interests become forceful advocates. In this regard, the CRT has started to expand its data base. As a first step, it is collecting the names and addresses of members of the state advisory boards.

Fortunately the Trails Act provides funding for six years, through FY 97. Legislation requires that studies be undertaken to determine the true amount of gasoline taxes collected on fuels used by off-road recreational vehicles. When the trails community learns that those collections are in the range of $150 million annually (my estimate), it is likely to adopt a far more aggressive approach to the appropriations process.

This program has already produced two side effects which work for our best interests long term. First, it has mandated the formation of state recreational trails advisory boards. Trail users are now working together to resolve problems -- in the conference room, not the courtroom. Second, legislation provided that the states must reserve a portion of their own gasoline tax for use in providing and maintaining recreational trails. In many cases, this provision has prompted the states to reevaluate the adequacy of their own trail funding programs. These two developments will be part of the enduring legacy of this legislation.

Now, use your imagination. Picture your trail system after five years of full funding at a $150 million level. The smallest state allocation would be $1,400,000 annually. To make it all happen, the active support of all recreational trails users will be needed.

January 1994

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