Skip to content
Facebook iconYouTube iconTwitter iconFlickr iconLinkedInInstagram
Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty (HEP)
HEP Events Guidance Publications Glossary Awards Contacts

Federal Transportation Funds Benefit Recreation

Christopher Douwes, FHWA Trails and Enhancements Program Manager, December 2011

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is leading the United States in developing a surface transportation system to move people and goods in a safe, accountable, flexible, efficient, and environmentally responsible manner. FHWA's programs benefit the Nation's communities to improve quality of life, provide access for all, and preserve our heritage. FHWA's programs also benefit recreational interests.

On this page:



FHWA Partnerships

The FHWA has a long history of partnerships with State Departments of Transportation (DOTs) to deliver the Federal surface transportation program. The FHWA's Federal Lands Highway Program partners with Federal land management agencies such as the National Park Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the USDA Forest Service to provide assistance to construct highways within recreational areas on Federal Lands. FHWA also has partnerships with other Federal agencies, Indian tribal governments, other State agencies, regional and local governments, and the private sector. Here are some examples of partnerships related to recreation and to pedestrian and bicyclist access.

Access for All

FHWA promotes a transportation system that is accessible for all, including people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is civil rights legislation, which prohibits discrimination from programs, services, or activities on the basis of disability. In September 2000, FHWA and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) sent a joint letter to their field offices, State DOTs, and transportation partner organizations recognizing that an accessible transportation infrastructure is a civil right, and encouraging accessible pedestrian accommodations wherever possible. The FHWA issued a Memorandum in 2006, Clarification of FHWA's Oversight Role in Accessibility, to reinforce the importance of ensuring accessible facilities. The FHWA is working with the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board), States, and nongovernmental organizations to improve accessibility for all under the ADA and related legislation.

FHWA participated on the Regulatory Negotiation Committee on Accessibility Guidelines for Outdoor Developed Areas to propose guidelines for recreational trails, outdoor recreation access routes, beach access routes, and picnic and camping facilities. This committee submitted its Final Report in September 1999. The USDA Forest Service developed its Trail Accessibility Guidelines to help implement this report. The Access Board issued Proposed Guidelines for Federal Outdoor Developed Areas in June 2007, and Draft Final Accessibility Guidelines for Outdoor Developed Areas on October 19, 2009.

FHWA participated on the Access Board's Public Rights-of-Way Access Advisory Committee, which recommended accessibility guidelines for public sidewalks, street crossings, intersections, and traffic signals. The Access Board issued Proposed Guidelines for Public Rights-of-Way on July 26, 2011, that address various issues, including access for blind pedestrians at street crossings, wheelchair access to on-street parking, and various constraints posed by space limitations, roadway design practices, slope, and terrain.

The Access Board announced an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Shared Use Paths on March 28, 2011. The Access Board, in consultation with FHWA and others, is considering how shared use paths function as trails for transportation purposes, and how to consider the differences between recreational trails, shared use paths, and the public right-of-way.

FHWA's report Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access is a two part report presenting research and a Best Practices Design Guide to promote universal design for pedestrian access in the street environment and on recreational trails. See and

Pedestrian Accommodations and Safety

FHWA's Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Program develops and provides safety programs in cooperation with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. FHWA's Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Research provides information on issues and research related to improving pedestrian and bicyclist safety. The Safe Routes to School Program provides funds and resources to the States to develop and improve pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and safety programs near elementary and middle schools.

FHWA provides funding for the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center and the National Center for Safe Routes to School, operated by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, to provide technical assistance to practitioners in these areas.

Physical Activity

The Memorandum of Understanding to Promote Public Health and Recreation (HTML / PDF 147 KB) commits several Federal departments to work together to promote uses and benefits of the Nation's public lands and water resources to enhance the physical and psychological health and well being of the American people. This collaborative effort promotes healthy lifestyles through sound nutrition, physical activity, and recreation in America's great outdoors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends walking and bicycling as two ways to encourage physical activity. FHWA programs can help provide more safe and convenient places for physical activity.

Heritage and Historic Preservation

Federal highway funds are the single largest source of funds for historic preservation available to the States. Transportation Enhancement funds can be used for historic preservation related to surface transportation, and both Transportation Enhancement and National Scenic Byways Program funds help communities develop heritage tourism programs. See FHWA's Historic Preservation Program website. FHWA also participates with Federal Land Management Agencies to support National Scenic and National Historic Trails.

Trail Programs

FHWA participates with the USDA Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service on the Federal Interagency Council on Trails. FHWA signed the National Trails System Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in December 2006 with these agencies to promote National Scenic and National Historic Trails and National Recreation Trails. FHWA works with these agencies to support the National Trails System Act and other related legislation.

FHWA recognizes the importance of training for trail design, construction, maintenance, operation, and management. FHWA supports the National Trails Training Partnership. FHWA works with the Forest Service Technology and Development Program to improve trail technology and equipment, and to provide Forest Service trail publications to the public (see Order Form). Through this partnership, many Forest Service trail publications are available for the public.

FHWA supports events and conferences relating to walking, bicycling, and trails, such as National Trails Day, the annual Trailbuilders conference, the International Trails Symposium, ProWalk/ProBike, and National Scenic and Historic Trails, equestrian, snowmobile, and off highway vehicle conferences. FHWA also meets with State Trail Administrators, Transportation Enhancement Professionals, and State Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinators.

Top of Page

The Federal Surface Transportation Program

The FHWA is the largest single source of funding for shared use paths, trails, and related projects in the United States. Before 1991, Federal highway funds could be used only for highway projects or specific independent bicycle transportation facilities. Now, bicycle transportation and pedestrian projects and programs are eligible for nearly all major Federal highway funding programs. Recreational trails are eligible under the Recreational Trails Program.

The Federal Surface Transportation Program is codified in U.S. law under Title 23 United States Code (23 U.S.C.). It is generally reauthorized every four to six years. The Congress made a policy shift in surface transportation legislation through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991. For the first time, trail projects became eligible for Federal highway program funds. Under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), enacted in June 1998, the Congress broadened eligibility for trails and other related projects that benefit recreation. The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), enacted in August 2005, continued these programs, and added a Safe Routes to School Program. SAFETEA-LU expired in 2009, but several extensions have kept the Federal surface transportation program functioning.

Federal-aid Highway Program

The Federal-aid Highway Program provides about $40 billion per year to the States for the Nation's surface transportation system. Most funds are distributed to the States by formula for several program areas: Interstate Maintenance, National Highway System, Highway Bridge Program, Surface Transportation Program (STP, which has a set-aside amount for Transportation Enhancement Activities ), Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, Highway Safety Improvement Program, Appalachian Development Highway System, and the Recreational Trails Program. There are also several discretionary programs and Congressionally directed high priority projects.

Federal-aid highway funding programs benefit recreational interests, either indirectly by providing access to goods and services, or directly by providing access to recreation areas. Nearly all Federal-aid highway funding categories can be used to develop pedestrian facilities and bicycle transportation facilities, including shared use paths and related facilities that may have recreational use. From 1992 through 2015, the States have invested more than $8 billion on nearly 25,000 projects for shared use paths, trails, bicycle facilities, and related facilities with Federal-aid highway funds. (The $8 billion includes $176 million for Recreational Trails Program (RTP) projects classified as pedestrian and bicycle facilities. The total including $586 million in RTP projects that were not coded as pedestrian and bicycle facilities is $8.6 billion.)

Chart showing level of funding over time, from 1992 to 2015, for TE, SRTS & NTPP, ARRA, and Total Obligations. Amounts are shown in millions and range from $0 to $1400. For detailed description of funding please see:

Federal Lands Highway Program (

Federal Lands Highway Program (FLHP) funds may be used to construct roads and trails that provide access within or provide access to Federal lands. FLHP funds are about $1 billion per year. Recreation interests often benefit from FLHP funds.

There are four categories of FLHP funds: Indian Reservation Roads, Public Lands Highways, Park Roads and Parkways, and Refuge Roads. Funds available to the US Forest Service may be used for forest development roads and trails. Funds available to the US Fish and Wildlife Service also may be used for trails (up to 5 percent). To be eligible for funding, projects must be open to the public and part of an approved Federal land management agency general management plan.

FLHP funds appropriated to a Federal land management agency may be used to pay the non-Federal share of the cost of any Federal-aid highway project that provides access to or within Federal or Indian lands. This allows Federal agencies to use FLHP funds to match other Federal Highway funds: see 23 U.S.C. 120(k) and (l).

Top of Page

Primary Programs for Trails

Surface Transportation Program -- Transportation Enhancement Activities (

Pedestrian and bicycle projects are eligible for all Surface Transportation Program (STP) funds. The STP provides more than $7 billion annually to the States through a formula apportionment. Ten percent (plus 10% of Equity Bonus funds) are set aside for Transportation Enhancement (TE) Activities1; TE funds are about $850 million per year. From 1992 through 2011, TE funds provided $3.5 billion for pedestrian and bicycle projects and programs. TE funds may be used for project construction and related activities, but not for routine maintenance.

TE projects must relate to surface transportation, but many of the eligible TE activities benefit recreation. Three of the 12 TE activities specifically benefit pedestrians, bicyclists, and trails:

The National Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse (NTEC) has project examples and a project image library. From 1992 through 2011, more than 25,000 TE projects have been selected for funding, totaling more than $9 billion. About half of the TE funds have been used for pedestrian and/or bicycle facilities and related projects. About one-third of all TE projects have been used for shared use paths or other transportation trails, or to provide trail-related facilities for these trails; this includes more than 1,000 rail-trail projects.

Each State has its own application and selection process for TE projects. Generally, project sponsors submit proposals to the State Department of Transportation (DOT). Many States give extra credit to projects that benefit two or more of the eligible TE activities (such as scenic or historic easements, landscaping and scenic beautification, historic preservation, environmental mitigation, and transportation museums).

FHWA encourages the States to enter into contracts and cooperative agreements with qualified youth conservation or service corps to perform appropriate transportation enhancement activities. See for information on youth corps.

In general, the maximum Federal share for TE projects is 80 percent (higher in States with large proportions of Federal lands). The non-Federal match must come from project sponsors or other fund sources. Some in-kind materials and services may be credited toward the project match. See Summary of Requirements for Matching Funds for TE Projects.

The TE program is a Federal-aid reimbursement program, not an up-front grant program. Usually, project payment takes place on a reimbursement basis: the project sponsor must incur costs for work completed, and then submit invoices to the State for payment. Reimbursement is not permitted for work that takes place prior to project approval.

Recreational Trails Program (

The Recreational Trails Program (RTP) provides funds to the States to develop and maintain recreational trails and trail-related facilities for nonmotorized and motorized recreational trail uses. Examples of trail uses include hiking, bicycling, inline skating, equestrian use, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, off-highway motorcycling, all-terrain vehicle riding, four-wheel driving, or using other off-highway motorized vehicles. From 1993 through 2011, the States obligated $762 million in RTP funds for about 15,000 projects. Project sponsors have contributed additional cash, materials, and services at about a 1:1 ratio, for more than $1.5 billion for recreational trails.

RTP funds may be used for:

Each State administers its own program, usually through a State resource or park agency, which develops procedures to solicit and select projects. Each State has a State Recreational Trail Advisory Committee to assist with the program. See the State contacts.

FHWA encourages the States to enter into contracts and cooperative agreements with qualified youth conservation or service corps to perform RTP projects. See for information on youth corps.

States must use 30 percent of their funds for motorized trail uses, 30 percent for nonmotorized trail uses, and 40 percent for diverse trail uses. Diverse motorized projects (such as snowmobile and motorcycle) or diverse nonmotorized projects (such as pedestrian and equestrian) may satisfy two of these categories at the same time. States are encouraged to consider projects that benefit both motorized and nonmotorized users, such as common trailhead facilities. Many States give extra credit in their selection criteria to projects that benefit multiple trail uses.

In general, the maximum Federal share for RTP projects is 80 percent (higher in States with large proportions of Federal lands), but some States require up to a 50 percent match. Some in-kind materials and services may be credited toward the project match. See the RTP Federal Share and Matching Requirements.

The RTP is a Federal-aid reimbursement program, not an up-front grant program. Usually, project payment takes place on a reimbursement basis: the project sponsor must incur costs for work completed, and then submit invoices to the State for payment. Reimbursement is not permitted for work that takes place prior to project approval. However, working capital advances may be permitted on a case-by-case basis. States may allow prior planning and environmental assessment costs to be credited toward the non-Federal share (limited to costs incurred less than 18 months prior to project approval).

National Scenic Byways Program (

The National Scenic Byways Program provides for the designation by the Secretary of Transportation of roads that have outstanding scenic, historic, cultural, natural, recreational, and archaeological qualities as All-American Roads or National Scenic Byways. To be considered for the designation as an All-American Road or National Scenic Byway, a road must be nominated by a State, Indian Tribe, or a Federal land management agency and must first be designated as a State scenic byway or, in the case of a road on Indian or Federal land, as an Tribal byway or a Federal land management agency byway.

The program also provides discretionary grants for scenic byway projects on All-American Roads, National Scenic Byways, or State-designated scenic byways, and for planning, designing, and developing State scenic byway programs. From 1992 through 2011, the National Scenic Byways Program has provided $469 million for more than 3,000 projects.

In making grants, priority is given to:

The normal Federal share is 80 percent, with a 20 percent non-Federal share required. However, Federal land management agencies may provide matching funds for projects on Federal or Indian lands. Projects must be developed through each State DOT.

Top of Page

Planning and Project Decisions

Planning Requirements

Each State DOT must develop a statewide transportation plan, and each Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) 2 must develop a metropolitan transportation plan. All Federal-aid highway projects must be developed in relation to applicable transportation plans. Projects require a public involvement process. Recreation interests should be involved in both the long-range plans and project development. States should make sure that transportation plans have reference to or incorporate policies from their statewide comprehensive outdoor recreation plans or other recreation or trail plans.

Project Decisions

Most Federal highway funds are apportioned by statutory formula to State DOTs through several categories. National Highway System, Bridge, and Interstate Maintenance project decisions are made by the State DOT in cooperation with MPOs or with appropriate local officials outside metropolitan areas. MPOs select projects within their areas under the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program and the Surface Transportation Program, and the State DOT selects projects outside metropolitan areas in cooperation with local officials. Some exceptions are:

Top of Page

Design Issues

Some recreation advocates are concerned about excessive design requirements for projects using transportation funds. For example, some requirements necessary for highways (pavement and bridges must carry tractor trailers) are excessive for nonmotorized transportation facilities.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) published the Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities in June 1999. A new edition is expected to be released in 2012. The AASHTO Guide recognizes that nearly all shared use paths open for bicyclists will have other users (pedestrians, in-line skaters, and possibly equestrians). AASHTO published its Guide for the Planning, Design, and Operation of Pedestrian Facilities in July 2004. These guides are available through the AASHTO bookstore (see

FHWA released Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access, Part 2, Best Practices Design Guide, in November 2001. It advocates universal design to promote access on sidewalks and pedestrian trails.

The USDOT developed Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned to study trails near railroad rights-of-way.

FHWA is working with agencies and interested organizations to develop design guidelines for bicycle and pedestrian facilities. A primary concern is that shared use paths and other bicycle and pedestrian facilities should be built to accommodate the intended transportation use, meet safety concerns, and allow for future increased demand. An overcrowded path may result in increased user conflict.

Pedestrian transportation networks and trails also need to take into account guidance from the US Access Board. FHWA developed courses on Pedestrian Facility Design and Bicycle Facility Design through its National Highway Institute. The pedestrian facility design course includes universal design throughout to assure an accessible pedestrian transportation system.

FHWA receives occasional inquiries related to bicycle facilities, shared use paths, sidewalks, and trails, such as which users are allowed, where they may be located, and how they must be designed. FHWA developed several information resources to address some of these issues:

FHWA is working with the USDA Forest Service and trail advocacy organizations to develop technical assistance publications to improve trail design, construction, management, maintenance, and operation to assure that trails have minimal impacts on the natural environment. Many guides are on FHWA's RTP Publications webpage or through the organizations listed on the RTP Trail Resources page. Examples include guides for:

Top of Page


FHWA's partnerships and programs benefit communities, and enhance quality of life, and assure access for all to the Nation's transportation network and to recreational activities. FHWA's support for funding, technology development, technical assistance, and training demonstrate the agency's commitment to enhance safety, mobility, and the human and natural environment. FHWA's website,, has more information on many programs that benefit the country.

1 TE Funds Authorizing Legislation

TE Definition, codified as 23 U.S.C. 101(a)(35):

Sec. 101. Definitions and declaration of policy

  1. Definitions.--In this title, the following definitions apply:
    1. Transportation enhancement activity.--The term "transportation enhancement activity" means, with respect to any project or the area to be served by the project, any of the following activities as the activities relate to surface transportation:
      1. Provision of facilities for pedestrians and bicycles.
      2. Provision of safety and educational activities for pedestrians and bicyclists.
      3. Acquisition of scenic easements and scenic or historic sites (including historic battlefields).
      4. Scenic or historic highway programs (including the provision of tourist and welcome center facilities).
      5. Landscaping and other scenic beautification.
      6. Historic preservation.
      7. Rehabilitation and operation of historic transportation buildings, structures, or facilities (including historic railroad facilities and canals).
      8. Preservation of abandoned railway corridors (including the conversion and use of the corridors for pedestrian or bicycle trails).
      9. Inventory, control, and removal of outdoor advertising.
      10. Archaeological planning and research.
      11. Environmental mitigation--
        1. to address water pollution due to highway runoff; or,
        2. reduce vehicle-caused wildlife mortality while maintaining habitat connectivity.
      12. Establishment of transportation museums.

2 MPOs are designated for each urbanized area of 50,000 population or greater.

Top of Page
Updated: 07/03/2023
Updated: 7/3/2023
HEP Home Planning Environment Real Estate
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000