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Acquisition Funding

Delaware & Lehigh Trail | Photo by Thom Carroll

US Dollars - Photo courtesy Getty Images
Photo courtesy Getty Images

Funding trails and greenways takes a bit of ingenuity and a lot of research. We’ve provided you with a good first step here by providing explanations of some of the various programs available. Although RTC does not directly fund the development of trails, there are many federal, state and local government funding mechanisms—as well as grants, partnerships and other creative funding methods—available.

Federal Transportation Funding

MAP-21, the most recent federal transportation funding law, consolidated a number of bicycle and pedestrian transportation funding programs that were previously available under SAFETEA-LU into a broader program called Transportation Alternatives. This singular program is the largest federal source for trail funding.

Transportation Alternatives

Transportation Alternative activities are projects that, according to the Transportation Alternatives Data Exchange (TrADE), “expand travel choices and enhance the transportation experience by integrating modes and improving the cultural, historic and environmental aspects of our transportation infrastructure.” The program is essentially a combination of two core active-transportation programs from SAFETEA-LU: Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS). While the eligible projects from the two funding programs are largely retained under MAP-21, these projects are now forced to compete against each other for funding, as well as with some road and environmental mitigation projects.

Although a few eligible activities were eliminated or altered under MAP-21, a number of activities remain eligible. These include the conversion of abandoned railroad corridors into trails for nonmotorized transportation uses and the “construction, planning and design of on-road and off-road trail facilities for pedestrians, bicyclists and other nonmotorized forms of transportation.” For a complete list of eligible Transportation Alternatives projects, visit the definitions section of the TrADE website.

Furthermore, activities that were previously eligible under the separate SRTS program included in SAFETEA-LU were also preserved under MAP-21, although they have been expanded upon under the new ‘Safe Routes for Non-Drivers’ eligibility of the Transportation Alternatives program. SRTS provides funds to improve the safety and availability of bicycle and pedestrian facilities to primary and middle school students. Formerly, each state had an SRTS coordinator responsible for administering the program. This position is now optional under MAP-21. More information on SRTS is available at the National Center for Safe Routes to School.

While Transportation Alternatives projects are federally funded, the funds are administered by each state’s department of transportation (DOT). Project sponsors are generally responsible for 20 percent of the project’s cost. Eligible entities to receive funds under the Transportation Alternatives program include local governments; regional transportation authorities; transit agencies; natural resource or public land agencies; schools, school districts and local education agencies; tribal governments; and any other local or regional governmental entity that is responsible for transportation oversight and is deemed eligible by the state DOT. Nonprofits are NOT eligible to apply as direct recipients of Transportation Alternatives funds, but they may partner with state or local entities that are eligible if the state DOT is agreeable. For tips on how to apply for Transportation Alternatives funds, see the applying section of the TrADE website.

Recreational Trails Program (RTP)

Under MAP-21, the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) is maintained as a distinct source of funding, although its funds are now drawn from the larger Transportation Alternatives funding pool. This program is managed by trail administrators in each state and is a grant program designed to be competitive; therefore, only projects that meet certain criteria may be funded. These include the maintenance and restoration of existing trails, development or rehabilitation of trailside and trailhead facilities and linkages, acquisition of necessary easements, associated administrative costs, and new trails and educational programs. At least 30 percent of all RTP funds must be used for non-motorized trails.

Unfortunately, states can now opt out of the RTP and re-designate the funds toward other transportation projects in the state. For 2013, only the governors of Florida and Kansas chose this option. Those seeking to build a trail in either of these states should be aware that they are unable to apply for RTP funds and are advised to contact their state trails administrator to discuss alternative sources of funding.

For the vast majority of states, the RTP remains an important source of funding for trail development; since 1995, this program has helped construct more than 100 miles of trail. Unlike the Transportation Alternatives program, private organizations are eligible for funds under the RTP, although this depends on the particular policies of each state.

Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program (CMAQ)

The Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program (CMAQ) is jointly administered by the FHWA and Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Funding is available for both “nonattainment areas” that do not meet federal air quality standards as well as “maintenance areas,” former nonattainment areas that are now in compliance with air quality standards. CMAQ provides more than $2 billion a year to state departments of transportation (DOTs), metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and transit agencies for projects that improve air quality. This includes improvements to pedestrian and non-recreational bicycle transportation infrastructure that contribute to a reduction in travel by single-occupant vehicles.

Associated Transit Improvements

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) requires that at least 1 percent of transit expenditures for urbanized areas of more than 200,000 people (known as 5307 formula funds) go to projects that improve access to transit service. This program was formerly known as Transit Enhancements but has otherwise been retained with the enactment of MAP-21. Many of these projects focus on cycling and walking. Contact your transit authority’s planner or MPO for more information.

Federal Lands and Tribal Transportation Program (FLTTP)

The Federal Lands and Tribal Transportation Program (FLTTP) is a consolidation of a number of previously existing government funding programs for transportation projects on federal land. The Federal Lands Transportation Program (FLTP), which is one component of the FLTTP, is an evolution of the former Federal Lands Highway Program combined with the former Park Roads and Parkways Program (PRPP). The FLTP funds projects that improve access within federal lands for which state and local governments are not responsible, including national forests, national recreation areas and national parks. One section of the FLTP specifically includes a provision for the use of federal funds for pedestrian and bicycle projects within these federal lands.

Another component of the FLTTP is the Federal Lands Access Program (FLAP). The FLAP is similar to the FLTP, but it provides funds for projects that improve access to federal lands on infrastructure owned by either state or local governments. As with the FLTP, the FLAP includes a provision for the use of the funds for pedestrian and bicycle projects.

Neither of these programs is a grant program. Instead, only the five Federal Land Management Agencies (FLMA)—the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Land Management—can receive FLTP or FLAP funds directly from the FHWA. Other agencies may receive these funds, but only at the request of one of these five FLMAs.

The third component of the FLTTP—the Tribal Transportation Program (TTP)—replaced the Indian Reservation Roads program that existed under the previous transportation bill. Like both the FLAP and FLTP, the TTP includes a provision for the use of funds for pedestrian and bicycle projects. These projects must be located on or provide access to tribal land and must involve infrastructure that appears on the national tribal transportation facility inventory. Only Native American tribal governments are eligible to apply for TTP funds.

For a complete list of FHWA and FTA funding sources that can be used for bicycle and pedestrian activity, visit the FHWA’s Bicycle & Pedestrian Program funding website.

Looking to help expand federal support for trails, walking and cycling in the next transportation bill? Be sure to take a look at the Partnership for Active Transportation website.


Other Federal Funding and Assistance

If your project has strong public support, you can tap numerous sources to help develop your rail-trail. Federal funding and assistance mechanisms are not limited to transportation but include recreation, environmental, brownfield, community development and arts programs.

National Recreation Trails (NRT)

Though not a source of funding, National Recreation Trails (NRT) designation from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior recognizes exemplary existing trails of local or regional significance. NRT designation provides many benefits, including access to technical assistance from NRT partners and a listing in the NRT database. In addition, some potential support sources will take NRT designation into account when making funding decisions. The NRT program is open to applications.

Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program (RTCA)

The Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program (RTCA) is a technical assistance arm of the National Park Service dedicated to helping local groups and communities preserve and develop open space, trails and greenways. RTCA is an important resource center for many trail builders in urban, rural and suburban areas. While RTCA does not give out grants or loans, the program “supplies a staff person with experience in community-based outdoor recreation and conservation to work with partners” on the ground. To apply for technical assistance from the RTCA, follow their application instructions located here.

Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) Stateside Program

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWC) 50/50 matching grant program is administered by state agencies in cooperation with the National Park Service. Program funds are intended for the acquisition and development of outdoor recreation areas; trails are one priority of this program. In particular, funds “target projects that would enhance urban parks and community green spaces,” with a focus on “developing blueways and public access to water resources and conserving large landscapes.”

Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG)

Providing annual grants on a formula basis to local governments and states for a wide range of community planning initiatives, Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG) funds are intended for activities that benefit low- and moderate-income persons, prevent or eliminate slums or blight, and address urgent community development needs. In the past, CDBG funds have been used for trail construction, as was the case with the construction.

Urban and Community Forestry (UCF)

A program of the U.S. Forest Service, Urban and Community Forestry (UCF) “provides technical, financial, research and educational services to local government, nonprofit organizations, community groups, educational institutions and tribal governments.” Trails and greenways are a key part of the program, which is administered by forestry agencies in each state.

Economic Development Administration (EDA)

Among the various programs administered by the Economic Development Administration (EDA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce is the Public Works program. The investment program provides funding with the goal of empowering “distressed communities to revitalize, expand and upgrade their physical infrastructure.” Among other uses, EDA Public Works funds can help redevelop brownfield sites and increase eco-industrial development. The EDA also offers limited local technical assistance to distressed areas in times of need.

Historic Preservation Funding Sources

Many trail corridors contain historic structures, which are often of regional or national significance. Administered by the National Park Service, the Historic Preservation Fund awards matching grants to state and tribal historic preservation offices for the restoration of properties that are on the National Register of Historic Places. To look up your state or territorial state historic preservation officer (SHPO), visit the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers. For information on the National Register of Historic Places and the process to get a property listed, visit National Register of Historic Places website.

Environmental Contamination Cleanup Funding Sources

Many rail corridors are contaminated from years of industrial use. To remediate this environmental pollution, there are many federal and state funding sources from which trails can benefit. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has devoted a section of its website to funding and financing for brownfields, which are former industrial sites where contaminants or pollutants may be present. Many trails have taken advantage of brownfield funding, including Rhode Island’s Woonasquatucket River Greenway Project, the Elkins Railyard redevelopment in West Virginia and the Assabet River Rail Trail in Massachusetts. A 2011 article from the Trust for Public Land shows examples of brownfields converted to parkland.

The EPA also administers Superfund, the federal government’s program to clean up some of the nation’s worst uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. More information about Superfund Redevelopment, an effort to return these hazardous sites to safe and productive use, is available on the EPA website. Specific information about rail-trails on or near Superfund sites is also available.

Wetlands Restoration Funding Sources

Many railroads were built through environmentally sensitive areas that are now candidates for restoration. Administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant Program is a matching grant program designed to assist states in the “acquisition, restoration, management or enhancement of coastal wetlands.” The 25 states bordering the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and Great Lakes are eligible. Although trails cannot be the primary beneficiary of these funds, the program has been used to work on trail infrastructure.

Related funding sources include the Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership—an innovative private-public partnership that provides money for wetlands restoration—and the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the Department of Agriculture, which offers technical and financial assistance programs to restore and protect natural resources and wildlife. The Environmental Protection Agency offers a full list of federal funding sources for watershed protection.


State and Local Government Funding

Although federal programs can provide many sources of funding for rail-trail acquisition and development, it is often necessary to obtain local financial support to provide matching funds for federal or state grants, or in case federal or state funding is not available. Cuts in federal spending combined with increased concern by citizens for protecting land have spurred cities and counties to take on a larger role in conservation funding. Funding through state and local governments can often be found in the departments of health, parks, conservation and transportation.

State Funding

State funding for trail development most often is administered through the state’s parks, recreation, conservation, natural resources or environmental protection department or agency. A variety of programs are available, including those that provide grants, matching funds and low-interest or interest-free loans. Examples include the following:

Municipal Allocations

The most common sources of funding at the municipal and county level include allocations from a specific department, such as the park and recreation department, or a line item in a consolidated capital improvement program (CIP) budget. In some localities, a portion of an increase in the sales tax will be set aside for recreational trail or other conservation funding. Rarely, new taxes will be levied to exclusively support active transportation projects. Some examples include the following:

Bond Issues

Local revenues may also be raised through bond issues. Mounting a successful bond campaign is like running any other campaign: you need strong citizen support, participation by local officials and business leaders and hard work. As evidenced above, some communities have also passed referenda to specifically fund trail and greenway projects. The Trust for Public Land maintains LandVote, a database of these local and state referenda.

Heritage Trusts

Many states have set up heritage trusts as funding sources to protect land. For example, the North Carolina Natural Heritage Trust Fund, which is supported in part by fees for vanity license plates, awards funds for conservation and recreation, including trail projects, to state agencies. The Indiana Heritage Trust likewise places a priority on greenway acquisition. Many of these trusts focus primarily on land conservation, so a rail-trail by itself is often not enough to justify funding.

Impact Fees

Regulated by county and municipal subdivision policies, impact fees require residential, industrial and commercial development project leaders to provide sites, improvements and/or funds to support public amenities such as open space and trails. Impact fees may be allocated to a particular trail from land development projects if the fund is a dedicated set-aside account established to help develop a countywide or citywide system of trail projects. Contact your county or city planner to find out more about impact fees for your area.

Growth impact ordinances are enforced by counties and cities to estimate the impact of all residential, industrial and commercial development on public parks and recreational facilities within a development project’s local and regional service zones. The ordinance makes provisions whereby the project developer will set aside the lands or monies necessary to offset the project’s specific park and recreational impacts. Another method of raising funds is through a direct property tax. Again, contact your county or city planner for more information.


Revenue from the Corridor Itself

Salvaging Material

The rails, ties, ballast and other improvements made to the corridor have salvage value and should not be overlooked. Revenue generated from the selling of these items varies widely, depending on local markets, the length of the corridor and the quantity of salvageable materials. Nebraska’s Cowboy Trail, for example, helped fund the purchase of its corridor by selling salvageable material. However, salvageable materials often have been sold—legally by the railroad or illegally by waste pickers or adjacent landowners—by the time a trail corridor is in public ownership. For more information on salvaged materials as a source of revenue, look in the Salvaging Material section of the Trail-Building Toolbox.

Leasing to Utilities

A growing source of trail development funds is coming from the leasing of subsurface rights for fiber-optic cables and other utilities. Compatible co-uses of a rail-trail corridor include sewer, water and natural gas. Occasionally, above-ground utilities such as telephone and overhead electric lines can successfully share a corridor with a rail-trail. In the past, utility companies have also bought abandoned corridors and then donated the land for trail use. Abandoned corridors can provide key links for utility use, so working cooperatively with local utilities can help pay for your trail. For more information on this type of co-use, look in the Utilities section of the Trail-Building Toolbox.


Private Funding Sources

Funds can be attained from private sources in countless ways—from holding bake sales to soliciting foundation grants. But when fundraising, be sure to have a specific goal in mind. As one contributor to the RTC Listserv notes, “It is always easier to raise money when you have a specific operational purpose (e.g., land acquisition or land management) as opposed to general organizational needs.” Of all the potential types of funding, private funding sources provide trail builders with the greatest amount of flexibility and opportunity for creative approaches.

Campaigns and Donations

Communities across the country have raised money for the development and maintenance of their trails and greenways through various fundraising campaigns. Some groups have “sold” pieces of trail, providing each donor with a “deed” for their segment of the trail. Other groups have also sold trail amenities, such as benches and trees. But donations can be creative; use whatever resources you have! For example, RTC worked with Bob Whittaker, who manages the tours of the rock group REM, to advance the progress of Washington’s Ferry County Rail Trail. As part of his fundraising effort, Whittaker asked the band for an autographed guitar to auction off for the trail. The subsequent sale on eBay earned about $1,500 for trail development.

Trust Funds or Endowments

These sources can be set up to aid funding for acquisition, construction or maintenance, and can be administered by a nonprofit group or local commission. Funds can be contributed to a trust fund from government sources, private grants and gifts. One contributor to the RTC Listserv notes that transparency is important with a trust fund, stating, “If you do set up a dedicated endowment for land management, I would recommend keeping the endowment’s books open to the public and [providing] members and donors with annual financial reports for the endowment.”

Foundation and Company Grants

Many foundations and companies provide grants for trail and greenway projects, open space preservation, community development and community health. To obtain larger contributions from foundations or corporations, you will need a full-fledged funding proposal that illustrates the communitywide value of the trail and describes how it will be developed and maintained. Here are just a few examples of grants from private sources that can be used for trail-building:


Be Creative!

You don’t need to fill out a grant application every time you need funding. From partnering with local businesses to holding a large event, there are many ways to think outside the box while raising money and awareness.


Explore the possibility of creating partnerships to build and maintain your trail or greenway, potentially through an “Adopt-a-Trail” program. These can be important for not only constructing and maintaining your project, but also building community pride. Try contacting businesses in your area to see if they offer any kind of community support programs. Whole Foods Market, for example, hosts several five percent Community Giving Days at each store annually to support the work of community nonprofits.

Don’t be shy about appealing to local clubs for volunteer assistance. The Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Sierra Club, biking and trail clubs, birding clubs and local civic clubs are all potential sources of help.


Who doesn’t enjoy good music, food and company? In June 2008, the Lassen Land and Trails Trust put on Bridgefest, a two-day music festival in Susanville, Calif. The proceeds were donated to the trust’s Trails Endowment Fund, which worked to raise money to rebuild a bridge along the Bizz Johnson Trail, which burned in a 2000 wildfire. Trail builders and managers can organize fundraising events such as dinners, parties, festivals, fairs, raffles or concerts to raise funds near the trail. Or try events along the trail route itself, such as a hike-a-thon, walk-a-thon, bike race or foot race.

One creative RTC Listserv contributor suggested holding a “poker run” along the length of the trail, where trail supporters collect cards along the way and the finisher with the best hand wins a prize.

Volunteer Opportunities

Military units with construction expertise are sometimes willing to assist with construction of trails on federal land. One RTC Listserv contributor worked with the Washington Air National Guard and the 864th Engineering Battalion to completely refurbish railroad bridges along the Foothills Trail in Pierce County, Wash. While not a source of funding, this resource could be helpful for some trail projects.

The Take Pride in America program, operated by the U.S. Department of the Interior, serves to mobilize civilian volunteers to help improve federal lands. The Corporation for National and Community Service runs numerous volunteer programs, including AmeriCorps, which could provide useful labor for your trail. Many national parks and other federally managed lands also operate Youth Conservation Corps programs, which could likewise provide labor for your trail project.

Public Art Funding Sources

Many trails feature art as a core component, such as along the Steel Valley Trail section of the Great Allegheny Passage near Pittsburgh. Funding sources for public art can often be found at the state level; the Maryland State Arts Council, for example, offers a grant program for public art. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies can guide you to your state’s arts agency with their national directory. On the federal level, one of the most well-known resources is the National Endowment for the Arts, which operates numerous grant programs supporting public art. The National Trails Training Partnership features a section on art for trails and greenways.

Still looking for more fundraising possibilities? The National Trails Training Partnership has a list of 96 innovative funding ideas to keep your creative juices flowing.

For information on funding options for ongoing rail-trail maintenance, please visit our Management and Maintenance: Financing/Funding Toolbox page.



‣ Manual – Acquiring Rail Corridors: A How To Manual (see chapter 7, “Financing Your Acquisition”)

‣ Fact Sheet – Local Funding Sources

‣ Fact Sheet – Justice40 Covered USDOT Programs with Match Flexibility

TrailNation Collaborative

TrailNation Collaborative is a nationwide peer learning community from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy that brings together advocates, leaders and professionals from across disciplines to establish and accelerate trail networks across America. The collaborative provides proven tools, methods and resources, combined with RTC’s expertise and network of partners across the country, to accelerate the development of connected trail systems. When trails are connected across regions and states, trail networks have a proven transformative impact—they are essential infrastructure that creates thriving, healthier communities.

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