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Federal transportation bill will fund trails

A summary of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003 (SAFETEA).

By Bob Searns, The GreenWay Team

On May 14, 2003, Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta launched the Administration's six-year $247 billion (yes, billion with a "B") surface transportation reauthorization proposal. The Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003 (SAFETEA), continues the funding program known in recent years as ISTEA and TEA-21.

"Transportation funding includes the Recreational Trails Program of the Federal Highway Administration."

The proposed funding retains the Transportation Enhancements program with no new categories or transferability. It also retains other key programs: Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ), Scenic Byways, and Recreational Trails. SAFETEA also maintains broad eligibility of bicycle and pedestrian projects in major funding categories, and adds bicycling and pedestrian groups to the list of interested parties able to comment on state and MPO transportation plans.

Discussion and debate over the SAFETEA bill will be going on through 2003. When the bill will reach a final vote is a matter of conjecture. Visit the "News & Alerts" area of www.AmericanTrails.org for up to date news as it happens. The complete SAFETEA bill and a legislative analysis from the U.S. Department of Transportation can be downloaded from www.AmericanTrails.org.

Support for Rec Trails sent by trail groups

Twenty-one organizations from across the spectrum of trail and recreation interests signed a June 9 letter to key Members of Congress in support of the Recreational Trails Program in SAFETEA:

"We are writing to express support for continuation of the RTP program. We applaud the incorporation of RTP in the Administration's SAFETEA bill at an increased level of funding and ask for your personal assistance in extending and expanding this important program.

"The Federal Highway Administration estimates that off-highway recreational activities generate $286 million annually in federal fuel taxes. Federal motor fuel taxes were originally imposed as a user fee, and remain largely so today. It is therefore appropriate to invest off-highway recreation activity taxes primarily to improve the safety and enjoyment of off-highway recreation. We ask that you support the return of at least 50% of off-highway recreation-generated taxes to the RTP program rather than the 21% level proposed in SAFETEA."

Several changes to the Recreational Trails Program were proposed as part of SAFETEA. Some of these proposals were included by the Federal Highway Administration to address concerns raised by state trails programs as well as trails organizations. One issue has been the complexity of oversight intended for typical road improvements.

According to the Administration analysis, "RTP projects are much smaller than highway projects, and should not be treated as if they were highway projects." The new bill attempts to reduce this burden. Other modifications would address the role of the state trails advisory committees, the eligibility of training for funding, Youth Corps involvement in projects, and the creation of a Recreational Trails Resource Center. Whether any of the proposals will survive public debate is yet to be seen.

Recreation interests discuss SAFETEA strategies

From the American Recreation Coalition Recreation interests gathered June 10 at the Department of the Interior for an in-depth look at the reauthorization of the nation's surface transportation programs, programs totaling nearly $40 billion in expenditures annually from the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). The recreation community has become a major beneficiary of the HTF with nearly $1 billion in funding annually provided for recreation-related projects.

The briefing was moderated by AAA's Federal Programs Director Helen Sramek and included presentations by American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Vice President Janet Oakley, American Highway Users Alliance Executive Vice President Greg Cohen, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy George Schoener and Debbie Gebhardt, Chief of Staff for U.S. Representative Thomas Petri (R-WI). The panelists shared important insights on the issues and players shaping the next surface transportation measure.

Several pointed out that core elements of the Administration's proposal-- SAFETEA-- were very supportive of recreation: SAFETEA would address mobility, access, safety and personal choice of travel modes. All agreed that there was little interest on the Hill or among key constituent groups to see major changes in TEA 21 but that change-- or no action at all-- could result from underfunding of the legislation. And, all but Mr. Schoener agreed that the Administration's funding request was seriously underfunded-- even as they praised its themes and specific elements.

Each warned that programs like scenic byways, recreational trails, federal lands highways and even Wallop-Breaux program funds to aid boating and fishing could be jeopardized by battling among states to address donor/donee fund distribution patterns, since even losing states are not expected to actually see apportionments drop below current levels - and yet the Administration's bill boosts overall spending very little.

The presenters also agreed that the recreation-focused programs of ISTEA/TEA 21 were both popular and successful and could be expected to grow if severe funding issues could be avoided. One remaining unaddressed issue is the USDA Forest Service maintained road system-- some 400,000 miles in total and 65,000 of high-use recreation roads. The price tag for addressing a chronic underfunding of maintenance is now billions of dollars and growing. Challenges to overcome include both the magnitude of need and the timber-sparked controversy over roads on national forests.

The consensus of the panel was that a long-term bill would be passed by the 108th Congress prior to the 2004 elections but that a TEA 21 "extender" for up to one year was very, very likely.

Visit American Trails at www.AmericanTrails.org for updates on SAFETEA, legislation affecting trails, and federal transportation funding. Click on "News & Alerts."

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