Recreational Trails Program - A Primer

Posted 09/13/13 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Building Trails, Policy

Photo © Natalie Bartley

What is the Recreational Trails Program?

Since its creation in 1992, the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) has been the cornerstone of America's trails movement. Funded primarily by gas taxes paid by users of off-road vehicles, over the past 20 years the RTP has enjoyed remarkable bipartisan support and has funded nonmotorized and motorized trails in every state. It remains one of the few federal sources dedicated to the construction and maintenance of trails.

Through grants awarded to local trail building organizations, RTP funds the development and maintenance of recreational trails (paved and unpaved) and facilities for motorized and nonmotorized uses including hiking, bicycling, equestrian use, ATV/dirt bike riding and other recreational uses.

One of the great benefits of RTP is its flexibility. RTP grants can be used as a match for other funding sources. They encourage local investment in trail projects through fundraising, donated materials and volunteering, all of which can be used as a local match to attract an RTP grant. RTP grants can also be used for maintenance activities. This flexibility was fought for and won by trails advocates, including Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, in numerous negotiations over the years.

Despite its tremendous success, the program constantly faces the threat of elimination. Each year, state governors can opt out of the program by notifying the U.S. Department of Transportation of that intention by August 31. However in 2013/14 only one state, Florida, opted-out of RTP.

Some other facts about RTP:

States must use 30 percent of their funds for motorized trail uses, 30 percent for nonmotorized trail uses, and 40 percent for diverse trail uses.

In 2013 about $80 million in RTP was apportioned amongst 48 states and the District of Columbia. (Kansas and Florida opted out of the program in 2013). California received the largest apportionment, with $5.7 million, and the District of Columbia the smallest, with 825,000.

RTP can be used for acquiring easements or property for trails, and for construction of new trails, but it cannot be used for property condemnation under eminent domain.

RTP funds are distributed to the states by legislative formula: half of the funds are distributed equally among all states, and half are distributed in proportion to the estimated amount of nonhighway recreational fuel use in each state.

RTP was created following the passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in 2002 to ensure that the National Recreational Trails Fund established by that legislation received adequate funding.

The Coalition for Recreational Trails (CRT) is a federation of national and regional trail-related organizations. Its members represent a diverse range of interests, from four-wheel drive enthusiasts to equestrian groups to hiking and mountain biking advocates.

A database of projects funded by RTP grants is available at

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