TOPEKA — Kansas is one of only two states to opt out of a federal recreational trails program that matches local contributions with federal dollars to build bike, walking and ATV paths.
Recreational trails advocates are grinding their gears over that decision, saying it probably will result in fewer new trails and less maintenance of existing ones.
But state officials say opting out gives them the same amount of federal money and more freedom in how they spend it. They say it doesn’t necessarily mean Kansas will spend less on recreational trails, although no spending decisions have been made.
”We wanted to provide the state of Kansas maximum flexibility on where we spend that money,” said Chris Herrick, director of planning and development at the Kansas Department of Transportation. “It doesn’t mean we’re not going to spend it on recreational trails. … It just means now we have the maximum flexibility to spend that on any need we have.”
The trails program is part of the federal transportation bill called Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century – or MAP-21. It offered states the ability to opt out of the recreational trails program, which required them to spend a certain amount on motorized and non-motorized recreational trails. Florida is the only other state to opt out.
The money for such trails comes from fuel taxes, a portion of which comes from taxes on gas poured into off-road vehicles used on recreational paths, federal studies show.
Kansas was offered $1.3 million in recreational trails funding. The state will still receive that money after opting out, but it can spend half of it on any federally eligible transportation project and the other half on any alternative transportation project instead of agreeing to dedicate the full $1.3 million to recreational trails.
Herrick said the state has been spending roughly $1.3 million a year on recreational trails in recent years. But he said the state has less money overall because of reductions to the federal program. In fiscal 2011, the state got about $392 million. This fiscal year, that had shrunk to $366 million, he said.
But opting out means recreational trails projects will have to compete with other alternative transportation projects such as safe routes to schools, road planning and scenic overlooks, said Pam Gluck, executive director of American Trails, a nonprofit that works to protect trails and trail funding.
Foregoing the program also means the state will not be able to spend the federal money on trail maintenance and that it will not contribute to administrative and educational programs that benefit all states, she said.
“There are a lot of downsides to this,” she said.
In August, 51 national organizations and seven in-state groups, including the Kansas Horse Council, Kanza Rail Trails Conservancy, Kansas Recreation and Park Association and Kansas Trails Council, sent a letter to Gov. Sam Brownback urging him to continue the recreational trails program funding and oppose efforts to opt out.
It notes that the state has received $12.8 million in such funding that has helped pay for 269 trails projects.
If trails programs were to lose funding, “organized trail planning and development would largely vanish in our state,” the letter said.
Brownback’s office didn’t immediately respond to a call and e-mail Tuesday afternoon.
Larry Smith, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans for Responsible Recreational Access, said Kansas’ decision to opt out took him by surprise.
Smith said recreational paths create significant economic benefits as people come to the state for trails and spend money at gas stations, hotels and stores. The trails also encourage people to be healthy, he said.
“That’s money that heretofore would have gone to recreational projects that won’t be happening in Kansas,” he said. “They’ll be able to use it to pour concrete, I guess. From a recreational standpoint, that’s sad news.”