Should we increase the cost of trail passes in Wisconsin?

We hear it all the time: “Bikes don’t pay their way.”  To the point, Tom Held, of the Journal Sentinel’s Off the Couch, shared this email he recently received:


“I’m 75 and when I was a kid I had a J.C. Higgins bike that cost less than $35.00, although I wanted a Schwinn. We didn’t have gears back then but a couple of rich kids had three speed Sturmey Archer shifts. Every year I went to the city hall and paid fifty cents for my license plate. Woe to the rider who didn’t display one. Now, adult bicycle geeks don’t pay a dime but want all sorts of expensive concessions to their “sport”.

Years ago, an adult male on a bike was looked upon as odd. Come to think of it, men today in special shoes, silly peaked hats or little helmets and Tour de France shirts look a little odd, too.

We rode on city streets with streetcar tracks and heeded traffic controls, riding in the prescribed single file with our handlebars adorned with as many headlights as we could afford, hopefully with a generator at the tire. The rear we had at least a dozen reflectors and some guys had a couple of taillights. I see many bikes today with no lights at all. We traveled on county roads, paved and gravel and never dreamed of having special lanes created for us.

If today’s bikers want special accommodations for their thousand dollar bikes, let them be required to buy annual licenses for, say, $25.00 for adults and $5.00 for kids under fifteen and use the funds to pay for them.”

If we ignore the current lack of street cars, the fact that the vast majority of bikes still have platform pedals for regular shoes and that today’s much brighter LED bikes lights sell quite well, the Bike Fed has proven many times in the past that people who ride bikes in fact do contribute to the cost of building trails and maintaining the roads. At the most basic level, according to the WDNR, the state trail passes fund a bit less than 50% of the cost of our state trailsand hikers don’t have to pay.  So while bikes do come up short, guess what, so do cars. According to the Federal Highway Administration graph below, gas taxes now only fund about 5o% of our federal interstates and highways, not too much better than bikes.

Norman Rockwell memories of the past aside, the truth of the matter is things have changed since the 50s when user fees paid 70% of the cost of our transportation system. Today we don’t have enough money to repair our existing trails, bridges, highways or local roads, yet we continue to build more without repairing what we have. People who ride bikes don’t pay enough now and neither do people who drive cars. Our transportation funding system is broken. On that score there is little debate.

Source: Highway Statistics, forms HF-10 and HF-210, Federal Highway Administration.

Everyone agrees, the road building lobby, environmental lobby groups like 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, WisDOT, Governor Walker and the state legislature all understand the transportation system needs an overhaul and a massive influx of additional money if we are going to fix what we have, and plan for future growth.

That is precisely why they created the Transportation Finance and Policy Commission in the 2011-13 biennial state budget to look at the issue of financing Wisconsin’s future transportation needs. The public will get a chance to sound off at the commission’s first public listening session on Thursday at Sequoya Branch Library, 4340 Tokay Blvd. in Madison, beginning at 5 p.m. During the day, the commission will be taking testimony from invited guests, including John Burke, president of Trek Bicycles.

The Bike Fed will also be there, and we want to know how you feel about the issue.

Wisconsin has about 114,000 miles of public roads throughout the state. About 100,000 miles of those are local roads, funded primarily by property taxes, and local fees – not the gas tax. That means you pay for them whether you own a car or not. Wisconsin property taxes provide massive subsidies to road users – some $1.74 billion a year. The graph below shows how WisDOT  funds Wisconsin’s 750 miles of interstate freeways and 11,010 miles of state and US-marked highways.

Source: Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin

“We hope interested citizens will use the listening session to provide the commission with input on Wisconsin’s transportation future, especially as it pertains to prioritizing and funding our long-range needs,” said Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb in a news release announcing the listening sessions. Gottlieb serves as the commission chairman. Other commission members include Tripp Ahern, Fond du Lac; Tom Carlsen, Verona; Barbara Fleisner, Wausau; Robb Kahl, Madison; Craig Thompson, Madison; and Tom Vandenberg, Green Bay; Robert Cook, Madison; Dave Cieslewicz, Madison; Martin Hanson, Eau Claire, and John Antaramian, Kenosha.

Those unable to attend the Thursday listening session can send comments about the state’s transportation needs to the commission by email to

The commission has it’s work cut out for it to even fund highway projects.  Beginning in 2013, our state transportation budget will dip into Wisconsin’s general fund to try to shrink the gap between the cost of our roads and the money generated by the gas tax and registration. But since the general fund is short on money to cover things like education, health care, tourism, etc., that well cannot be dipped in too many times.

The Hank Aaron State Trail in Milwaukee, you don't need a trail pass to ride here, but should you?

It would be a great start if we could assign the real cost of each mode to the users.  But since local property taxes, fees and income taxes subsidize the majority of our roads in the state, it will be difficult to get people who drive motor vehicles to pay their full share. Bikes on the other hand are pretty cheap.  It would be pretty simple to pay the entirety of the cost of trails by simply doubling the trail pass fee.  Most people I know who ride bikes would pay more if they knew the money was going to a segregated fund just for trails.

That money isn’t enough to pay for bike lanes, protected bike lanes or bicycle boulevards, but until cyclists no longer have to subsidize the roads with our property taxes, income taxes and fees, perhaps it would be enough if we just paid for our trails, as do the people who ride snowmobiles and ATVs. Through bi-annual mandatory registration and formal gas tax set-asides, people who ride recreational motor vehicles actually do pay the full cost of building and maintaining their trails, and they are even proposing legislation to increase their registration fees.

Cleaning up the subsidy-filled morass that is the current transportation funding system for our roads will not be an easy task, especially given the current T(axed) E(nough) A(lready) “but I want more” political climate. That said,  it would be relatively easy to increase trail pass fees, ask hikers to pay for them as well, and require trail passes for urban trails so non-motorized trail users would shoulder the full cost of our trails.

I know, despite common misconceptions, motorists are getting subsidized. For our property taxes, snow removal fees, storm water runoff fees, and the cost of wars in oil producing countries, cyclists are getting more on-road accommodations than we used to, but given the limited, still disconnected networks of bike accommodations, cyclists probably pay more than our share for roads.

That said, the fact remains that the transportation funding system needs more money, if we are to nothing more than maintain what we have; so would you pay more for trail passes?  Despite Rockwell memories of fifty-cent license plates, mandatory registration has never proven a good source of revenue in the past, but we might be able to make it work today with modern technology, if it had the potential to raise millions of dollars like the proposed $34 registration fee for our state’s 200,000 snowmobiles.

Would you pay more, as the snowmobilers are willing to do, if that money went into a fund just to maintain and build trails? Let us have your comments below.


About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

28 thoughts on “Should we increase the cost of trail passes in Wisconsin?

  1. I would be all for an increase for rural trails. I view it similar to paying a toll on a hwy. Drumlin is my hwy to Madison and the inter-urban through Ozaukee is my hwy north.
    I wish we could find an efficient and practical way to have municipalities have bicycle registration. This would have to come with some kind of service for stolen bikes though. I believe Copenhagen recently came up with some sort of tracking that perhaps we could implement here.

    • Mandatory registration was stopped in Milwaukee after they discovered that after decades of registering bicycles, they only had 8,000 some bikes in the database. People just were not doing it. Now I know Madison does a better job, but the $10 fee for four years does not generate enough money to be used for bike facilities.

      Although I am personally somewhat in favor of coming up with a bicycle registration system that works and actually generates real money for bicycle facilities, we always arrive at the case that we already pay in terms of property taxes, local fees, and as Jill points out below, gas taxes.

      I think one thing the commission could help with, formally recognizing the financial contribution people who ride bikes already make and the subsidies motorists already enjoy at our expense. Ideally even giving people who don’t own a car a discount on those taxes and fees. That might make it easier for more cyclists to stomach paying mandatory registration fees.

      • Agree w/dave S. However I would add that from a user fee perspective, weight and annual mileage ought to be considered since that is the primary wear and tear on roads.
        Also, other vehicle subsidies ought to be thrwn into the mix. Watercraft, for example… the DNR, coast guard, and marine police are not suppported by registration fees, etc yet boats are only registered every 3 yrs for very moldest sums. When we consider that a 40′ powerboat uses 30 gallons of fuel/hour, and pays little more than $40.00 per yr for registration… that’s a subsidy!

    • Todd, I wish I had better data on that. I will ask the WDNR if they have any idea what percentage of trail users just don’t buy a trail pass.

  2. I just want to note that the arguments outlined about funding roads and bike trails are based on a false dichotomy between cyclists and motorists. In reality, I think that people who cycle also drive cars. Perhaps some of them want the money they pay for owning and operating a car to be used to build roads that are bike-friendly. I am a dedicated bike commuter, and I also use my bike year-round to run errands, visit friends, go to dinner–all the things that most people do with their cars. I think that having bikes pay more money to maintain and build more trails could create an increased sense among drivers that bikes should not be on the road because “they have their own path.” How will those of us who use our bikes as our daily mode of transportation get to the places we need to be if we are not “supposed” to be on the road?

    • Jill, I do understand this dichotomy, but I’m not sure it is entirely false. While you can certainly make the argument that 90% of adults who ride bikes also own cars, and people like you have a right to ask their taxes be spent as you desire. The problem arises in that we are ruled by simple majority, and it is often the case that the minority does not get what they want in our system, meaning bicycles might see their money get cut because the majority of road users want our money just for cars. If we have our own clearly identified source of money that only we pay, it would be harder to argue we should not get to spend it on what we want. Of course the rub is that we already pay, in property taxes, snow and ice removal fees, etc., even if we don’t own a car.

      Ideally, we would have a system where we paid the full cost to drive our cars when we drove them and also paid to ride our bikes. If that were true, I think we would see a lot more people riding bicycles, since overall it is so much less expensive. Imagine how much the gas tax would be if we included the cost of the wars in he Middle East.

  3. As a property owner in Madison, car owner, year-round bicyclist, and transportation policy professional, I can guarantee you that I am subsidizing the vast majority of drivers via my property taxes. I rarely use trails, simply because they don’t go where I need or want to go. The trails I do use do not charge a fee, because the City of Madison understand that they are part of the entire transportation system, and we don’t have tolls in Wisconsin.

    Maybe we should have tolls on our roads, and then I would object less to paying a fee to use the trails. In my opinion, trails within the boundaries of the Metropolitan Planning Organizations (a federally mandated transportation planning body for urban areas greater than 50,000 people) should not charge tolls. These trails are often just as much transportation as recreation. Rural trails are less likely to be used for transportation, although they may be important connectors for small communities as well.

    Right now, the vast majority of my riding is on roads that I pay for via my local property taxes, of which I pay quite a bit. I do not complain (usually) when people from other municipalities drive on the roads I paid for with Madison property taxes, so it chaffs me a bit to hear other people complain that I am taking up road (or trail) space and not “paying.”

    I am not thrilled that my hard-earned money goes to a use that I think is wasteful and unsustainable – a car-oriented transportation system – but I understand that I have to work to change our spending and planning priorities. However, I am certainly not going to endorse an increase in fees for people that are already paying more than their fare share – via property taxes, car registration and licensing, and yes, gas taxes – just to make others feel that I am now “legitimate.”

  4. And one more comment: Years ago, there was a proposal to charge a toll to cross the Golden Gate Bridge by bike – a popular tourist activity as well as something many Bay Area bike commuters do on a regular basis.

    The decision was made to not charge a toll for bicyclists (or pedestrians), but instead to put out donation boxes. And do you know what happened? The donations far exceeded the projected revenues from tolls. People willingly gave far more than the toll would have been. And except to empty the donation boxes once in awhile, there was no staff involved, which would have probably eaten up most of the revenue from tolls.

    I have long thought that there should be donation boxes at the entrances to urban non-motorized transportation corridors (aka “trails), and I’m willing to bet it brings in more money than the trail passes.

    • Robbie, I can’t find any info about how much revenue the donation boxes collected. The last references seem to be in 2003 when the boxes were installed. Can you share a link with the revenue detailed?

  5. The WI DNR needs to go back to the fee area concept they had before the recent trail pass system. If the DNR feels a trail or trail system needs the trail pass general income to cover day to day operations all users should pay to use that trail. I am not saying all trails should have a fee. Just the ones the DNR has said to have higher maintenance needs and are all ready charging users for a trail pass.

    • Kenny, do you remember why that system was dropped? If it brought in more revenue in a manageable way, I wonder why it was changed.

      • DNR’s stance

        A state trail pass is required on certain trails and for certain uses, as determined by the Parks Management Team. Criteria used to make the determination include the cost of developing and maintaining the trail, availability of staff to sell passes and enforce the requirement, amenities provided on the trail (such as ski trail grooming), and the purpose, length and location of the trail. Our authority to charge a trail pass fee lies in s. 27.01 (8), stats. The specific language regarding who may be charged is in NR 45.12 (3) (a), Wis. Admin Code:

        The only difference was after the rules change hikers had to pay nothing. Making hiking more favorable as a free tourist option.

  6. My household has two cars and 7 bikes and the total mileage between the two some years is about the same. I ride year round and get nervous every time I get into a car these days, but I would be happy to pay for a bicycle license! But… only if every other road user actually paid their fair share of the REAL cost of our transportation choices. With numbers so stacked against the car, I doubt the highway and car lobbies would ever let that happen. Minnesota has been trying to figure out a mileage based system, but with little success so far.

    • Well, the interesting thing about this funding problem is that the only politically viable solution seems to be get more money from somewhere, for everyone. It seems very unlikely that we will ever plan to drive less, build fewer roads, etc. Given we are going to ask motorists for more money, whether it be through higher taxes, tolls or fees, it behoves cyclists to consider where we might contribute more.

      Again, I agree, that ideally all road users would pay their share, but politically that seems very unlikely. It seems better to make sure bicycle accommodations are included on all road projects and we get modern facilities like protected bike lanes included in the list of state approved options.

  7. I object to a lot in this article, but one thing I will note that as far as mountain bike trails are concerned, no tax dollars are spent building and maintaining those trails. They are built and maintained by local voluntary organizations…..whose members still have to pay for a trail pass to use them.

    • That is true John, but many of those trails are on public land, which means land owned by the taxpayers. And our transportation system is entirely funded by taxes and fees. Since you don’t mention what you object to, I can only guess what you mean about the relevance of comparing mountain bike trails to multi-use trails. It is one thing to go out with an adze and a clinometer and cut some single track or even drive a small trail dozer through the forest. It is a whole different thing for a private group to raise $400,000 to buy ROW from a railroad company and lay 5 miles of asphalt. Local municipalities can do that with local funds, but private groups have not done so anywhere to my knowledge. Some states do have privately operated interstates, but they were all constructed with tax dollars.

      Is that what you were getting at, or did I misunderstand your point?

  8. Maybe it’s time for an excise tax on bicycles and components to fund bicycle infrastructure. Soemthing along the lines of Pittman-Robertson or Dingall-Johnson acts that sportsmen have been funding for decades.

    • This is just me personally, but I like that sort of idea, but at the state level. I’m not sure we would want to pay an 11 percent excise tax, but perhaps half that? As I have said repeatedly, I know I already pay more than my fair share for roads through property taxes, fees, income taxes that subsidize the bonding in the transportation trust fund, etc., but I am personally willing to pay more IF that money is put in a well defined, segregated account just for trails and other protected bike facilities.

      That said, we do need to stress that bicyclists already pay for the roads and deserve good accommodations just like motor vehicles.

      • Support the Kohl-Petri Bill for bicycling. It is an 11% excise tax on all bicycle products is now needed to push for while the federal transportation bill is debated. Why 11%? Because that is what the other federal acts are, and the other groups can’t come after us by saying that we are not paying our own way. Of course no transport mode pays for itself, but with this bill passed, we will have a new pedestrian and bicycle friendly transportation bill for the next 6 years.

        • Morning Fred, is this a bill you are suggesting, or is it something that actually has been proposed and I am just unaware of it.

          , I emphasize that to say it is not the official Bike Fed opinion, I agree with an additional fee paid by cyclists to start the funding discussion on the right foot. I think once we establish that we pay for what we get, we could then move on to demand that we stop paying for what we don’t use and in the end we would have a sustainable dedicated funding stream and bicycling would look a lot more attractive to a lot more people. Unless you know something I don’t about this excise tax bill, I think you and I are in the minority among our fellow cyclists.

  9. The State trail pass fee was raised from $15 to $20 within the last ten years. There was a bit of moaning about that, but speaking for WORBA at one of the State hearings, I supported the increase. Another $5 or so should not be a big deal. I would like to see more enforcement of the current fee requirement.

    To ensure that all bikers pay into a fund to improve biking and biking opportunities in Wisconsin, I would like to see a one time fee assessed at the time a bike is purchase with the money going into a state bike fund. The fee would need to be high enough to cover the bike shops’ costs of collecting and forwarding the money. Perhaps the fee could be based on the cost of the bike. Twenty to $25 on a bike costing $1000 or more would be insignificant to the buyer.

    • Thanks for the historical reference and the suggestion of a one-time fee Harold. I have had similar thoughts. I think retailers would need to buy in to that idea. They might worry about pushing sales to internet out of state with that fee, but I would hope not.

  10. I like the one-time fee idea at the time of a bike purchase to help generate a relatively consistent flow of revenue for trail development and care, in addition to the trail pass revenue. It’s also a way to raise awareness about existing trails among bike owners. I’m surprised how often I talk to casual bikers who don’t have a clue about the multiple trails here in SE Wis. And yes, I already pay taxes for the roads I ride on, but I’d hope a revenue source dedicated to bike trails could eventually mean more trail options.

    • That is how I feel as well Dennis. The greater problem is that the taxes we already pay for roads are not enough by a long shot and our elected leaders in Washington and Madison are looking for more money for bridges, roads and highways. Even though Bike and Ped projects make up less than 2% of our transportation budget, they have been completely eliminated from in the House version of the federal Transportation Bill. This seems more a politically driven move based on the user’s pay, users benefit theory of government than a cost savings measure given the minuscule impact it will have on the $260 billion bill. What is worse is that the House bill proposes filling the growing gap in transportation funding with taxes on new domestic oil drilling that doesn’t yet exist. I’m not a financial advisor, but even I can see that is more of a wish and a prayer than a solid source of money. It also goes directly against the conservative libertarian user pay, user benefit philosophy used to cut bike and ped programs. These are interesting times. Stay tuned to this blog and we will keep you up to date on the goings on. It is also a good time to email or call your elected official and remind them that you are tax payer, a bicyclist and a voter. Thanks for your thoughts on this complicated and contentious issue.

  11. One caution about raising trail fees, do it slowly. Among public owned trails, the State of Wisconsin charges the 2nd highest user fees in the US. Only the Route of the Hiawatha trail in the Idaho panhandle charges more ($9 daily adult, $6 kids 13 and under, $25 season). If gas and diesel fuel taxes funds roads, why not have a sales tax on food to funds ped and bike facilities.

    • Greg, those are important points and the Bike Fed is very open to any method to fund trails and other bicycle infrastructure. The House Transportation Bill dropped yesterday and it eliminates the federal funding programs that have built most of our trails in Wisconsin. While the House Bill reverses 20 years of progress, the Senate Bill is not quite as bad, and it is likely the President would not sign any bill that kills all federal funding for active transportation, but it seems clear that we are going to need to find new funding sources to continue building and maintaining trails and other bicycle infrastructure in Wisconsin. Stay tuned for more info on this blog as the debate in Washington and in Madison continue. And thanks again for your perspective.

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