Dear EarthTalk: What exactly is the federal government's Recreational Trails Program and is it true that it's on the chopping block? -- Randy Caldwell, Lyme, N.H.
The Recreational Trails Program is a federal assistance program that helps states pay for the development and maintenance of recreational trails and trail-related facilities for both nonmotorized and motorized recreational trail uses.
The Congressionally mandated program was in jeopardy due to budget cuts, but its backers in Congress announced this past July that RTP would be retained to the tune of $85 million per year as part of the new surface transportation agreement law called MAP-21. Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar was instrumental in the retention of RTP by introducing it as an amendment to MAP-21 as a stand-alone program with its own dedicated funding.
Overall, MAP-21 allocates $105 billion for fiscal years 2013 and 2014 to improve safety, reduce traffic congestion, maintain infrastructure and improve the overall efficiency of highway transportation. RTP is one of several provisions of MAP-21 that bolster transit, bike and pedestrian programs across the country.
Funding for the RTP portion of MAP-21 comes from a portion of the motor fuel excise tax collected across the country from non-highway recreational fuel use in snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, off-highway motorcycles and off-highway light trucks, and comes out of the Federal Highway Trust Fund. Half of the RTP funds are distributed equally among all 50 states, and half are distributed in proportion to the estimated amount of non-highway recreational fuel use in each state. Individual states are responsible for administering their own RTP monies and soliciting and selecting qualifying projects.
That said, the use of RTP funding is restricted to maintenance and restoration of existing trails, development and rehabilitation of trailside and trailhead facilities and trail linkages, purchase and lease of trail construction and maintenance equipment, construction of new trails, acquisition of easements or property for trails, and assessment of trail conditions for accessibility and maintenance. RTP funding may not go toward property condemnation (eminent domain), construction of new trails for motorized use on federally managed public lands or for facilitating motorized access on otherwise nonmotorized trails.
States must allocate 30 percent of their RTP funding for motorized trail use, 30 percent for non-motorized use, and the remaining 40 percent for so-called "diverse" (motorized and nonmotorized) trail use. Projects may satisfy two categories at the same time, giving states some flexibility in how to allocate their share of the RTP pie. States can use up to five percent of their funds to disseminate related publications and operate educational programs to promote safety and environmental protection related to trails.
Trail lovers across the country are thrilled that Congress extended RTP, which began in 2005 with a $60 million allocation and was increased each of the following years until it plateaued at $85 million in 2009. The continuation of the $85 million allocation was also good news to those who feared that if it wasn't cut entirely it would be scaled back significantly. With new funding for the next two years, Americans can look forward to the creation of many new trails and continued maintenance of existing ones.
Dear EarthTalk: What is the Domestic Fuels Protection Act of 2012 and why are environmental groups opposing it? -- William Bledsoe, Methuen, Mass.
The Domestic Fuels Protection Act of 2012 (H.R. 4345) is a bill that was introduced in the House of Representatives in April 2012 by a bi-partisan group of Congress members to protect domestic producers of ethanol, biodiesel and other green-friendly fuels from liability to end-users who put the wrong kind of fuel or fuel mix into their tanks and damage their engines and/or emit exaggerated amounts of pollution accordingly. The idea behind the bill is to ensure that domestic "green" fuel and related equipment producers aren't forced into dire financial straits or put out of business due to crippling liability claims.
But some feel that the fuel industry, whether its products are environmentally friendly or not, should be held accountable for damage its products may cause. Most recently, E15, a fuel blend containing 85 percent gasoline and 15 percent ethanol (a renewable crop-based fuel) came under fire for causing engine damage in some older cars and trucks. The EPA approved the use of E15 in 2010 after lobbying from the ethanol industry, which seeks to up the ethanol content of gasoline from what had been the standard of 10 percent, which is much easier for gasoline engines to tolerate.
The Auto Alliance, an industry group, recently released a study claiming that upwards of 5 million cars on U.S. roads today could be damaged if owners pump in E15 instead of straight gasoline or even the milder E10 (10 percent ethanol, 90 percent gasoline).
Environmental and consumer advocates say that H.R. 4345 is a bad deal for consumers who will be left footing the bill for these repairs. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) bemoans the bill because it would exempt hugely profitable and already "favored interests" including fuel producers, engine makers and retailers of fuels and fuel additives from liability for damage caused by their products.
H.R. 4345 is currently under committee review in the House, but analysts doubt it will ever make it to a floor vote given the contentious debate surrounding the fact that it puts the burden of repair costs on end consumers.
Users on the govtrack.us website (which provides free and comprehensive legislative tracking for everyday citizens) give H.R. 4345 only a three percent chance of passing. Meanwhile, the Senate is considering a companion bill, the so-called Domestic Fuels Act (S. 2264). But unless the House passes its version first, the Senate bill is unlikely to gain much traction.