Every six years or so Congress authorizes a Transportation Bill, a funding and authorization bill that governs expenditures for surface transportation funds. The bill provides direction for how hundreds of billions in transportation funds will be spent across the nation. This includes big infrastructure projects like highways and bridges, but a small portion of the overall funding benefits those who recreate on public lands. Earlier this month Congress passed a comprehensive transportation bill, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, that has been signed into law by the President.
For most of us public lands represent the landscapes that provide the most highly valued settings for the activities we enjoy: hiking, climbing, paddling, skiing, and biking. While the majority of our activities do not take place directly on roads, we typically use roads within lands managed by a National Forest, Bureau of Land Management unit, or National Park on our way to the goods. Once we step out of our vehicle we often hit the trail and the Transportation Bill also helps fund some of this infrastructure for bikers and pedestrians.
Maintenance of the roads and trails to access outdoor recreation destinations remains an ongoing challenge. The Forest Service for example, an agency with 380,000 miles of roads, is only maintaining approximately 20 percent of their road network to standard. The result of not maintaining our forest roads is a situation where we watch them literally wash down our rivers with corresponding impacts to public access and water quality.
As organizations that represent the human-powered outdoor recreation, we have a direct interest in how forest users connect with the landscape and several key programs in the Transportation Bill address this interest. Among the programs of most interest to the outdoor recreation community are the following:
Recreational Trails Program
The Recreational Trails Program provides funds to the States to develop and maintain recreational trails and trail-related facilities for both non-motorized and motorized recreational trail uses. Funds for the program come from the Federal Highway Trust Fund, and represent a portion of the motor fuel excise tax collected from non-highway recreational fuel use: fuel used for off-highway recreation by snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, off-highway motorcycles, and off-highway light trucks. Each state administers its own program and funds can be awarded to federal or state agencies as well as non-profit organizations, including Outdoor Alliance member organizations and local affiliates who build trails and provide maintenance. While there were several threats to the program, the trail community rallied and was able to maintain this program that will be funded at $85 million annually, a level consistent with past funding.
Federal Lands Transportation Program
The Federal Land Transportation Program funds projects that improve public access to federal lands including National Forests, National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, Bureau of Land Management, Army Corps of Engineers, and other Federal public lands. Projects can include roads, bridges, trails, or transit systems, acquisition of necessary scenic easements, provision for pedestrians and bicycles, and construction and reconstruction of roadside rest areas.
The new funding formula for this program provides $335 million and increasing to $375 million over five years. Of importance to those who utilize Forest Service roads to access outdoor recreation opportunities, the legislation creates a new dedicated line item of the Forest Service (something the National Park Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service already had) with increases each year.
Federal Lands Access Program
The goal of the Access Program is to improve state and local transportation facilities (i.e. public highway, road, bridge, trail, or transit system) that are located on, adjacent to, or provides access to federal lands. The Access Program complements the Transportation Program. Where the Transportation Program focuses on transportation infrastructure owned and maintained by federal land managers, the Access Program provides resources to state and local roads that provide access federal lands. Preference for projects is given to high-use federal recreation areas or federal economic generators.
The new funding formula for this program provides $250 million and increasing to $270 million over five years.
National Environmental Policy Act
One troubling provision buried in the Transportation Bill is a program to “eliminate duplication of environmental reviews.” This will allow up to 5 states to participate in a program to conduct environmental reviews and make approvals for projects under State environmental laws and regulations instead of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. The final bill includes requirements for an annual report to Congress on this program that is set to sunset in 12 years.
The good news is that threats to cut these important programs did not materialize, but the bad news is the outstanding needs are still significant and the modest increases we saw in some of these programs represents only a small positive step forward. Investing in infrastructure for outdoor recreation is important in realizing the local economic benefits of outdoor recreation. Congress still has work to do in providing the resources for adequate maintenance of infrastructure that is critical for access to our public lands.