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Publication Number:      Date:  Spring 1995
Issue No: Vol. 58 No. 4
Date: Spring 1995


The National Recreational Trails Funding Program

by Christopher Douwes

National Recreational Trails


The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991 authorized the National Recreational Trails Funding Program for fiscal years (FYs) 1992-97. So far, Congress has appropriated $7.5 million for this program. Although the program is administered by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the states select the projects to be funded.

In all, states chose to fund 478 trail-related projects; these included installing trail gates, snow trail grooming, clearing brush, reconstructing bridges, and developing trail facilities. Most projects ranged in cost from $2,000 to $25,000 although a few states had larger projects. The average project cost was $14,322.

The federal funds provided for actual trail projects totaled nearly $6.8 million. In addition, many states, local governments, and trail advocacy groups raised nearly $6.6 million in local funds -- nearly doubling the value of projects funded. A majority of the states (39) requested or required matching funds. In 17 of these states, the local matching funds exceeded federal funds.

Notwithstanding this success, trail needs far exceeded available funds. Most states received more applications for projects than they could satisfy. Nationwide, 38 states received 932 project requests, totaling almost $26.8 million, for which funding was not available. The other states did not report unfunded projects.

State Selection Processes

While each state developed its own method of project selection, they basically relied on one of two mechanisms: open competition and selection by a state agency.

Most states used an open competition process to rank and select projects for funding. Generally, these states developed application packages and provided them to local governments and trail advocacy groups. The completed applications were ranked based on state-developed criteria. Some states used their Recreational Trail Advisory Boards to make project selections.

Seventeen states opted for the "selection by agency" approach. Some of these states distributed funds among several small state projects; for example, Kansas and Ohio funded small projects in many state parks. Other states consolidated funds for use in a few major projects. Connecticut and Nebraska, for instance, used all their funds on rail-trail projects that used their entire state allocations.

Youth training and employment.

The Projects

The National Recreational Trails Funding Program provided funds for 478 individual trail projects. Examples of these projects from across the country are described below.

Humanizing transportation: putting people first

The Trails Program helped build connections between neighborhoods. For example, the city of Maryville, Tenn., received funds to rehabilitate its Greenbelt Trail, which provides access for people with disabilities and connects several municipal buildings and commercial areas.

Youth training and employment

Several states funded projects aimed at creating educational and employment opportunities for young people.

Project Opportunity, which involved several public and private organizations in Georgia, provided summer jobs and training opportunities in the Chattahoochee National Forest for at-risk youth. Trainees learned to draw maps, install signs, identify environmental impacts, and control erosion. They also maintained and constructed various trails and trail facilities for hiking, bicycling, equestrian use, and off-road vehicles. The Trails Program paid for materials, and the Job Training Partnership Act paid for the labor.


States could use some of their funds on educational projects. For example, the Finger Lake Elementary School in Palmer, Ark., received funds to purchase materials to build a nature trail and boardwalk to observe a wetlands area.

Environmental protection

Several states achieved their recreational, scenic, and educational goals while simultaneously protecting environmentally sensitive areas. For example, the Nevada State Parks Department and the North Tahoe Fine Arts Council worked together to construct an accessible boardwalk, an overlook, an environmental education kiosk, and fencing to protect sand dune vegetation.


Nearly all states funded projects to enhance access for people with disabilities. The city of Montrose, Colo., used federal and local funds to construct a trail along the Uncompahgre River to provide access for walking, bicycling, and wheelchair use.

Enhancing access for people with disabilities.

Green line

Infrastructure rehabilitation

Several states used their funds to repair, restore, and/or maintain existing structures. New York City received funds to repair old equestrian and walking trails in Van Cortlandt Park. Texas restored flood-damaged trails in Brazos Bend State Park.

Rail-to-trail conversions

There were at least 38 rail-trail projects in 23 states, totaling nearly $1 million. These projects created or enhanced trails converted from abandoned or unused rail corridors.

Despite the tremendous growth in the rails-to-trails program since its beginning in the mid-1960s, less than 5 percent of the track abandoned in this century has been converted to trails. Many of the available, unused rail corridors are located in urban areas. These urban corridors have tremendous potential for promoting walking and bicycling as practical means of transportation, as well as for recreational purposes.

The Friends of the Riverfront in Pittsburgh, Pa., improved landscaping and rehabilitated the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, a rail-trail along the Allegheny River, providing a trail near downtown.

George S. Mickelson Trail is a rail-to-trails project.

Green line

Federal Land Also Benefited

Federal land management agencies benefited from the Trails Program:

for projects on U.S. Forest Service lands in at least 26 states.
for projects on National Park Service lands in six states, plus a Hawaii project providing access to a National Service trail.
for projects on Bureau of Land Management lands in seven states.
for a project on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lands in Texas, plus another project in cooperation with the Corps in Pennsylvania.
for a project on Tennessee Valley Authority land in Kentucky.
for a project on U.S. Army land in Texas.


Despite very limited funding, the FHWA and the states have done well by the Trails Program. The states have used their funds wisely to provide benefits to a broad range of interests. The Trails Program has helped make urban area connections; maintain trail infrastructure; restore natural areas; provide access for people with disabilities; enhance access to natural, scenic, and historical areas; and provide enjoyable recreational activities for all kinds of trail users. The program also has relied on -- and strengthened -- cooperation between nonmotorized and motorized users and between the transportation and recreation communities.

Christopher B. Douwes has been the Trails Program Manager for the National Recreational Trails Funding Program since its establishment in December 1991, and he serves as the staff support for the National Recreational Trails Advisory Committee. He also works with the Statewide Planning Office and with the Bicycle and Pedestrian Program in FHWA's Office of Environment and Planning.




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