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KS: Unhappy trails? Bikers, hikers forced to avoid gauntlet of red tape

By   /   September 17, 2012  /   No Comments

By Gene Meyer | Kansas Reporter

Finding extra money for recreational trails in Kansas may make building them more complicated, trail fans say.

TOPEKA –  Government red tape can be expensive, and Kansas has just bought itself about $700,000 worth.

Kansas has more than 2,100 miles of recreational trails in the state, and residents who use the bikeways and pathways will decide whether a recent move amounts to a bargain or a boondoggle.

Transportation, wildlife and parks officials have found a way to squeeze the extra $700,000 from federal fuel tax revenue, but the tradeoff for building a simple bike path will mean following rules and regulations akin to building a four-lane highway.

Kansas last month chose to opt out of a federally funded Recreational Trails Program that would provide $1.3 million to repair or expand more than 650 trails in the state —  from suburban jogging parks to a 150-mile stretch of the old Chisholm Trail of western cattle drive fame.

Tourism people and outdoor enthusiasts weren’t happy.

“We were pretty disappointed,” said Patti Stalder, a director of the Kansas Horse Council, one of the state’s biggest boosters for recreational trails. She and others feared the money would be lost forever.

Kansas would still get the $1.3 million, which comes from fuel taxes the U.S. collects from off-road vehicle users, but opting out freed the state to mix the money with $10.3 million in other off-road fuel tax funds the state receives from the Federal Highway Administration for Transportation Alternatives programs.

Friday, Kansas Transportation Secretary Mike King and state Wildlife Parks and Tourism Secretary Robin Jennison announced Kansas’ recreational trails programs would receive $2 million in federal funding this year. That’s the original $1.3 million, diverted from trails programs into a different Transportation Alternatives fund, plus the $700,000, which was meant to pay for other projects, such as repainting historic train depots.

Spiffing up Kansas’ recreational trails “will help move ecotourism forward in Kansas,” King said in statement released with the announcement of the new funding,

The money will go first to the Kansas Department of Transportation to help satisfy some federal requirements for off-road highway funding and then to Wildlife’ Parks and Tourism, which manages the state’s trails program.

“It is a solution that only a bureaucrat might dream up, but ‘opt out’ was creating the wrong impression,” said Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Department spokesman Ron Kaufman. “We were trying to be flexible with the funding.”

That sought-after flexibility could become harder to find when state officials decide how to spend the money, recreation trail advocates say.

Most trails projects in Kansas are relatively small compared to highway building, said Mike Goodwin, a director of the Kansas Trails Council, in Topeka.

“Many are maybe $25,000 or $50,000,” he said.

But when money for those trails is swirled through the broader Transportation Alternatives programs, recreational trails in effect become federal highway projects. Developers have to follow many of same federal prevailing wage regulations, competitive bidding rules and other contracting rules construction companies follow to build interstate highways. Some perks of the smaller Recreational Trails programs vanish, too — federal funds that help pay administrative costs for the smaller program, for example.

“I don’t want to be negative, because $2 million for trails is a wonderful thing,” said Pam Gluck, executive director of American Trails, a Redding, Calif.-based organization that supports recreational trails.

“But this approach potentially adds an awful lot of complexity to the process,” Gluck said “It is going to end up costing a lot more to put recreation trails on the ground, period.”

Contact Gene Meyer at gene.meyer@kansasreporter.org

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