• Paul Hammel
  • Wed August 29 2012
  • Posted Aug 29, 2012

LINCOLN — Bicycle enthusiasts in Nebraska and Iowa can breathe easy: Both states have decided to continue using federal funds earmarked for bicycle trails for that purpose.

Under the new federal highway bill, states were allowed to opt out of the federal recreational trails program and use that money instead for general highway maintenance and construction.

But cyclists' fears that roads might trump trails were groundless, at least regionally.

Rick Sanders, president of the 85-member Bellevue Bike Club, said he is grateful. Members of his club, as well as other bicyclers, had lobbied to retain the state programs, as well as federal funding.

“We're probably one of the most fiscally conservative states in the Union,” Sanders said. “Having our governor step up for trails is good for the cause.”

Gov. Dave Heineman, along with the Nebraska Department of Roads, recently decided to continue with the program, which provides about $1 million a year in grants to communities to build trails for bikes, hikers, snowmobiles and horses.

“We did not feel that there was any reason to take that money away,” said Mary Jo Oie, a spokeswoman for the Roads Department. “It has been, and continues to be, a quality program.”

Iowa also has decided to continue using its federal trails money for trails, though it still might officially opt out. By doing that, the state might be able to keep about $14,000 now retained by the federal government as an administration fee, according to Craig Markley of the Iowa Department of Transportation.

“We're still doing our due diligence so we're sure there's not going to be any downside” to opting out, Markley said.

Iowa gets about $1.4 million a year from the federal government for its recreational trails program. The administration fee amounts to 1 percent.

Paul Trombino III, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation, will make the decision by Sept. 1 — the deadline to notify federal officials if a state wants to opt out.

If Iowa does opt out, it would be under no obligation to use its money for trails, but the state agency has made the commitment to do that, Markley said.

The Federal Highway Administration sends about $85 million a year to the states, which award matching grants to local communities to build recreational trails. A spokeswoman said the agency won't know until Sept. 1 how many states will opt in or out.

Recent recipients of recreational trail grants in Nebraska include: Bellevue/Sarpy County, to extend a concrete trail to the Quail Creek and Lakewood Village neighborhoods; Lincoln, to replace asphalt trails in Pioneers Park with concrete; and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, for a machine to groom cross-country ski trails at Ponca and Niobrara State Parks, and at Lewis and Clark Lake.

The trails program has been in operation in Nebraska since 1996, according to Michelle Stryker of the state Game and Parks Commission, which coordinates the program.

The new federal highway bill, dubbed the MAP-21 bill (for “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century”), merged programs that dealt with recreational trails into a new program, “transportation alternatives.”

But under lobbying by trail groups, Congress retained a line item for recreational trails, with the caveat that states had the right to opt out of continuing to use the money for trails.

Sanders, the Bellevue bicyclist, said he knows club members who commute to the U.S. Strategic Command headquarters on bikes from Papillion on a concrete bike trail. He and his wife, Bellevue Mayor Rita Sanders, biked to the College World Series this summer, parking in a bike corral across the street from TD Ameritrade Park.

Overall, he said, recreational trails help promote healthy lifestyles and provide a pathway for commuters. Young people, Sanders said, look for trails when picking a place to live.

“Trails are becoming part of what's expected in a metropolitan community,” he said.





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