Fees proposed to help fund state trails

Deficient trail maintenance funds led lawmakers to alternatives.

Allison Kronberg

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, was met with blank stares, gaping mouths and a heap of concerned mail earlier this month after he proposed walkers and bikers pay to use state trails.

Though the idea wasn’t popular with most, the lawmaker said it was an attempt to find a solution to a problem no one seems to want to discuss — there’s not enough money to keep state trails in good shape.

Minnesota has added almost 250 miles of state trails in the last decade. But the state general fund and the state lottery fund, which pay for most of their operation and maintenance, haven’t grown as rapidly.

“The trail maintenance has experienced a gradual increase in cost, which has gradually eroded our ability to maintain them to a decent level,” said Andrew Korsberg, trail program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The closest state trail to the University of Minnesota, Luce Line, is less than 10 miles from the Minneapolis campus.

Currently, the DNR receives about $2.5 million to fund the trails. State funding per mile has decreased by about $500 from 2008 to last year, causing a cutback in maintenance activities like sweeping or mowing the trails, Korsberg said.

The DNR also creates and maintains many unpaved trails throughout the state, and those are paid for in part by fees that snowmobilers and cross-country skiers pay, he said.

Of the $8.4 million the state receives from snowmobilers annually, Korsberg said, $3.5 million goes to the state snowmobile grant-in-aid trail program, which maintains trails.

“It would [be] nice to see people who use them in the other seasons pay a little bit,” said CSE senior Lucas Petersen, who has been snowmobiling since he was about 10 years old.

Snowmobilers in Minnesota pay $75 every three years for each snowmobile they bring on trails. And since most families have more than one, Peterson said, it gets expensive.

Like Peterson, many snowmobilers want the money they pay to only fund snowmobile-caused damage, Korsberg said.

“It is nice that [trails] can be used during the other seasons,” Peterson said, “but at the same time, I know that other people can do other damage to the trails.”

Cornish said it’s unfair that bikers and walkers, who often use the same trails, want better trails but don’t want to help pay for them directly.

He suggested that bikers or walkers wear a sticker or patch showing they have paid a daily or annual fee to use the trails. He didn’t recommend any specific price tag.

“If you want nice trails and more of them, this would be a way to fund it,” Cornish said.

Most who opposed his proposal had worries about children, elderly or disabled people having access to the trails.

But Cornish’s proposal would allow those groups to use the trails without a fee, he said.

He related walking or biking on trails to fishing or hunting with paid licenses.

Some have criticized the idea because low-income families may not be able to afford the fees. State trails, many have told Cornish, should be a public good, regardless of income.

Others have pitched a sales tax on bicycles or a license tax for car owners to help contribute to park and trail funds, Korsberg said.

However, a 2004 state trail study found that about 41 percent of trail users would use the trail much less with a user fee, Korsberg said.

Conversation about state trail-user fees dates back to the beginning of the trails, he said, and it’s likely to come up again.

“The costs of everything goes up over time with inflation, and that will continue to erode our ability to maintain the trail system,” Korsberg said.