Kansas is one of only two states to opt out of a federal program that matches local contributions with federal dollars to build bike, walking and ATV trails.
Trail 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 they’re getting the same amount of federal money but more freedom in how they spend it. They say the decision 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.
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, some coming from gasoline that off-road vehicles use on recreational paths, federal studies show.
Kansas was offered $1.3 million in recreational trails funding. The state will still receive that money, but it can spend half on any federally eligible transportation project and half on any alternative transportation project.
Herrick said the state has been spending roughly $1.3 million annually 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 that trail 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.
Forgoing the program also means that Kansas 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, the Kanza Rail Trails Conservancy, the Kansas Recreation and Park Association and the Kansas Trails Council — sent a letter to Gov. Sam Brownback urging him to continue the recreational trails program funding.
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.
Larry Smith, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans for Responsible Recreational Access, said of the Kansas decision: “From a recreational standpoint, that’s sad news.”