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RTC TrailBlog

  • Determined Mississippi Communities Get Their Groundbreaking Moment

    The moment when a rail-trail vision moves from blueprint to actual construction is a celebration of the ability of America's citizens, communities and businesses to act on the hopes and desires for their community, and make them real.

    Last week it happened yet again, this time in northern Mississippi, where a sustained grassroots effort supported by a coalition of local municipalities won funding support for a 44-mile pathway for hikers, bikers and riders of all kinds along an former railway corridor.

    Thanks to a $9.6 million Transportation Enhancements (TE) grant administered by the Mississippi Department of Transportation, and a $100,000 Recreational Trails Program (RTP) grant from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, construction began recently on the first stage of what will be known as the Tanglefoot Trail.

    The 10-foot-wide paved path for walkers, bicyclists and horseback riders will pass through three counties in rural northeastern Mississippi, and connect a number of towns between New Albany and Houston. The trail, through scenic woodlands and fields, and featuring access to historical sites, is scheduled for completion in early 2013.

    The Tanglefoot Trail will run along the former Mississippi-Tennessee Railroad, built by William Faulkner's great-grandfather, Colonel William C. Faulkner, in 1872. The name Tanglefoot comes from the narrow gauge engine of the same name used during construction of the railroad.

    The first section will be built in the city of New Albany and will progress southward to completion in Houston. Trail advocates and planners in Mississippi are eager to replicate the success of the Longleaf Trace to the south, which, since it opened in 2000, has become a hugely popular regional asset.

    The second phase of the project will consist of the design, development and construction of gateway buildings in New Albany, Pontotoc and Houston. These facilities will serve as trail welcome centers. 'Whistle Stops,' or rest area facilities, will be located in the Ingomar, Ecru, Algoma and New Houlka communities. Already, local entrepreneurs are being asked to consider ways to capitalize on trail traffic through restaurants, cafes, bike shops, bed-and-breakfasts, campgrounds and retail opportunities close to the trail.

    Aware of the need to coordinate their individual energy for the project, in 2006 the various municipalities along the trail's route--Chickasaw County, Pontotoc County, Union County, town of Algoma, town of Ecru, city of Houston, city of New Albany, town of New Houlka and the city of Pontotoc--came together to form a Rails to Trails Recreational District. The result was an impressive study in cooperation that ultimately impressed transportation officials of the broad regional demand for the trail.

    According to Kelly Pack, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's director of trail development, the announcement of funding for the Tanglefoot Trail is particularly timely, as the U.S. Congress considers a transportation reauthorization bill that could potentially eliminate or severely hobble TE and RTP. 

    "As we see here, these grant programs enable local entities to build the assets they know their communities need," she says. "They are powerful programs. They are an incredibly efficient use of transportation spending, but it's more than that. They reward this grassroots cooperation--and allow cities and municipalities and residents and local businesses to make good on their visions for where they live."

    Photo of the Tanglefoot Corridor courtesy of Michael Jones.

  • Caring For a Common Space: Research Connects Urban Greening With Safer Neighborhoods

    One of the most stubborn obstacles to building new trails, particularly in big cities where crime and public safety are often dominating concerns, is the perception that such pathways encourage or increase incidents of vandalism, assault, vagrancy and theft in nearby neighborhoods.

    From our many years facilitating both urban and rural trails in communities of all shapes and sizes, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) staff understand that, in fact, the opposite is true. Time and time again we see new multi-use trails bring human activity and a level of ownership and care to areas once abandoned and neglected. It's the basic premise of all "neighborhood watch" programs: the constant surveillance of residents and businesses is often the most efficient deterrent to antisocial behavior.

    While RTC has compiled substantial evidence of experience regarding crime and urban trails, which has been documented and presented through our Urban Pathways Initiative (UPI), until now we have lacked hard scientific data to support that anecdotal library.

    Which is why a groundbreaking study on the effects of urban greening in Philadelphia, recently published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, has drawn so much attention from urban planners, community groups and sociologists alike.

    The study puts solid data behind what we have long known: that bringing human traffic, community activity and opportunities for recreation to once neglected, defaced areas brightens unlit spaces, making them safer and increasing their 'value' - whether measured in terms of real estate indices or appeal to the community.

    The authors of the study conducted a decade-long comparative analysis of the impact of Community LandCare, a vacant lot greening program in Philadelphia. In the treated lots, local resident volunteers and neighborhood groups improved abandoned lots with topsoil, trees and fencing, and conducted regular maintenance. The treated lots were compared with vacant lots that were eligible for greening but did not receive treatment.

    The results demonstrated that vacant lot greening was associated with consistent reductions in gun assaults across all four sections of the city, and consistent reductions in vandalism in one section of the city. There were also a number of stress and wellness benefits for local residents associated with transforming the neglected sections.

    "Economic downturns, deindustrialization, and population outmigration have made the abandonment of land a challenge for many US cities," the authors write in the introduction to the study, A Difference-in-Differences Analysis of Health, Safety, and Greening Vacant Urban Space. "These vacant lot treatments often produce immediately noticeable, visually dramatic results; are straightforward to implement; cost little, relative to other urban health and safety programs; and are responsive to community concerns."

    "With respect to safety, the 'broken windows' theory suggests that vacant lots offer refuge to criminal and other illegal activity and visibly symbolize that a neighborhood has deteriorated, that no one is in control, and that unsafe or criminal behavior is welcome to proceed with little if any supervision. A related theory, the 'incivilities' theory, suggests that physical incivilities, such as abandoned vacant lots, promote weak social ties among residents and encourage crimes, ranging from harassment to homicide. Central to both theories is that criminals are thought to feel emboldened in areas with greater physical disorder while, at the same time, residents are driven toward greater anonymity and are less willing or able to step in and prevent crime. We can speculate that violent crime may have simply been discouraged in the presence of greened and tended vacant lots which signaled that someone in the community cared and was potentially watching over the space in question."

    The Department of Health and Human Services will host a free webinar this week to discuss the release of the report and its impact on violence and injury prevention.

    Urban trails generate precisely the same community activity and ownership, making the study an important resource for trail proponents. The results have particular bearing on RTC's Urban Pathways Initiative. Though most municipalities have long come to accept that creating commuter and recreational pathways is good for the neighborhoods they pass through, from time to time fears of increasing crime and vandalism are raised to oppose the development of a new trail. Unfortunately, these fears, though countered by years of evidence, are sometimes still enough to derail a project.

    At a recent meeting of the Woodside Civic Association in Silver Spring, Md., residents opposed plans to extend the Capital Crescent Trail, asserting that it would bring crime to the neighborhood. Despite hearing the testimony of Darien Manley, chief of Montgomery County Park Police, who stated that trails do not bring crime to neighborhoods, the fear of increased crime and vandalism is still the basis of opposition to extending this enormously popular used commuter and recreation trail.

    According to local blog, Silver Spring Trails, Chief Manley stated that some crime does occur everywhere, and there will be some crime on trails, but typically there is less crime on a trail than in the neighborhood that the trail passes through. Manley stated that studies by the National Park Service and others show that the nationwide experience is similar to what he has experienced in Montgomery County: that crime is generally low on trails.

    Chief Manley told the gathering that criminals like secluded areas where with generally fewer potential witnesses. Trails, especially busy trails like the Capital Crescent Trail, bring in people who are using the area lawfully, and these lawful users put eyes on the trail that drive crime away.

    Similar fears recently impeded construction of a missing section of the Old Plank Road Trail through Chicago Heights, Ill., and continue to threaten widely supported plans for an elevated greenway through Queens, N.Y.

    This month, RTC unveiled a short documentary, Is It Safe? Crime and Perceptions of Safety on Urban Pathways, which related the experience of communities in Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Ohio, and Richmond, Calif., before and after trails were opened in their neighborhoods. Murals replaced graffiti, and kept it away; trailside gardens and parks replaced smashed windows and broken fencing; and local children walk and bike to school where before they had feared to tread.

    Despite some remnants of opposition, more and more homeowners and local officials are experiencing firsthand the transformative effect that urban trails have on neighborhoods. Not only have they become much sought-after transportation amenities that have a measurable effect on home values and health indicators, they are rallying points for the community, the catalyst in many instances for a renewed sense of caring for a common space.

    Photos, from top:
    Martin Luther King, Jr. Day volunteer cleanup on the Richmond Greenway, Calif., by RTC.
    Community garden beside the Midtown Greenway, Minn., courtesy of Payton Chung.
    Local residents promote a 5k event on the Compton Creek Bike Path, Calif., courtesy of Hub City Teen
    DC Prep students take activities on the Met Branch Trail, DC, by RTC


  • A True Story of Liberty and Transportation in Vermont

    Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's (RTC) new report on walking and biking in small town and rural America, Active Transportation Beyond Urban Centers, has really struck a chord with members across the country, and transformed the political debate about where the demand really is for walking and biking infrastructure. 

    After learning of the report from our eNewsletter, which went out yesterday, Rosina Perthel sent RTC an email to tell us of her recent experience of active transportation in America's smaller communities. As much as surveys and figures can paint a picture for us of what is happening out there, stories like this give the picture an extra dimension, of the people are impacted by access to, or a lack of access to, these transportation and recreation options.

    "I live in Montgomery County, Md., but have vacationed in Vermont my entire life," Rosina writes. "A couple of years ago my family visited the Delaware and Hudson Rail-Trail in West Pawlet, Vt. We walked, biked and had a picnic. West Pawlet is a very small community with few services. I am not sure they even have a general store, the ubiquitous gathering spot in almost every Vermont community. Most families are poor. If the parents work, they drive long distances and are away from home for many hours each day. There are two roads going into and out of town, neither of which is a safe bicycling road for adolescents. So, kids are stuck at home with not much to do.

    "During our picnic in West Pawlet, I noticed three local adolescent boys riding their bikes north on the rail-trail. After our picnic, we drove in to Granville, N.Y., which is the regional shopping location, to do our grocery shopping. At the strip mall, which is adjacent to the Delaware and Hudson Rail-Trail, I noticed these same three boys. They had beaten us to town!

    "The rail-trail has truly opened up a new world of opportunity for these boys. Their parents would not dream of allowing them to ride their bikes on the country roads, but did allow them to ride the five miles into town to visit friends, go to the library or just hang out. They will attend high school in Granville, so in the future they could even ride their bikes to school."

    Many thanks, Rosina, for relating to us your experience of the transformative impact of trails in American life.

    It is great hearing stories like this--keep them coming! You can email them to me anytime. at jake@railstotrails.org

    Photo of the Delaware and Hudson Rail-Trail courtesy of TrailLink.com.


  • Ed McBrayer's Passion for Biking Shaped a Better Trails Landscape In Georgia

    At Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's (RTC) 25th Anniversary celebration in October, we honored a group of men and women--the inaugural Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champions--who have made a remarkable contribution to the rail-trail movement during the past quarter century. We will be posting a blog story on each of the honorees during the coming weeks. Today we recognize Ed McBrayer, a concerned citizen who went on to become one of Georgia's most effective advocates for bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

    Before he built a career helping people get around on the ground, Ed McBrayer worked on helping people get around up in space. The native Georgian, an Aerospace Engineering graduate from the Georgia Institute of Technology, was a systems engineer in the NASA Skylab space program.

    In the early 1970s, McBrayer built his own home and enjoyed building it so much he quit his job in aerospace and went on to build more than 1,000 new homes in the Denver, Colo., area, where he became an avid recreational cyclist.

    It was as chairman of the planning commission for the city of Englewood, Colo., that McBrayer first became interested in trails and biking and walking infrastructure, promoting a trail system along the South Platte River to provide alternative modes of transportation and opportunities for recreational cycling.

    In 1991, he returned to Atlanta to find no trails, no bike lanes, no bike routes and very few sidewalks. So when the Olympics were awarded to Atlanta, McBrayer and two of his friends reasoned that in order for Atlanta to be a "world-class city," provisions for bike riding and pedestrian travel were a must. He helped form the PATH Foundation with a mission to build a network of off-road trails for use during and after the Olympics.

    A year later, McBrayer helped the Georgia Department of Transportation organize the Transportation Enhancement (TE) Advisory Committee to help prioritize TE projects in Georgia.

    With the help of many supporters, PATH built more than 20 miles of trails in time for the Olympics. Now in its 20th year, PATH has raised more than $95 million dollars from public and private sources to build more than 160 miles of trails throughout metro Atlanta and surrounding counties, including work on the Silver Comet and the developing Atlanta Beltline Trail.

    McBrayer awarded the Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champion grant given in his honor to the Arabia Mountain Trail, which is built partially on an out-of-service rail spur into a large granite quarry. A short drive east of Atlanta, the 12-mile trail winds through large granite outcrops, wildflowers and mountain-like streams.

    Photo of Ed McBrayer receiving his Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champion award from RTC President Keith Laughlin by RTC/Scott Stark.

  • Cosponsors of Amendment Announced - 2 Republicans, 2 Democrats

    The push to protect dedicated funding for trails, biking and walking continues to gain bipartisan support.

    Just a few moments ago, two Republicans and two Democrats jointly filed an amendment to the Senate transportation bill (MAP-21), that would protect the Recreational Trails program.

    That amendment, #1661, is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and James Risch (R-Idaho).

    Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is working hard to ensure passage of this amendment, along with another bipartisan amendment cosponsored by U.S. Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), to restore dedicated funds for trails, walking and bicycling.

    We encourage all members, friends and supporters to follow our fast and simple email action to tell your Senator to support these crucial amendments, which will ensure trails, biking and walking play a role in our transportation future.

    Sponsoring amendments that protect investments in trails, walking and biking, from top, left to right: Senators Klobuchar, Cardin, Shaheen, Risch, Burr and Cochran. 



  • Senate Amendment For Trails Attracts Republican Cosponsor

    Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's (RTC) policy staff have been working hard on Capitol Hill these past few weeks to ensure the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate pass transportation bills that protect dedicated funding for trails, walking and biking. It's been a wild few days.

    As the respective bills take shape, here's the latest, as of Thursday morning:

    In the Senate, RTC has taken a leadership position among a broad coalition of groups promoting two bipartisan amendments to the current Senate bill (officially titled S. 1813, "Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century" or MAP-21) that would restore dedicated funding for trails and active transportation through Transportation Enhancements, Safe Routes to School and the Recreational Trails Program.

    U.S. Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) have introduced an amendment (#1549) that would ensure local communities have a fair shot at dedicating funds for trails, walking and bicycling.

    RTC received word late yesterday that Senator Amy Klobuchar's (D-Minn.) amendment to restore the Recreational Trails Program has attracted a Republican cosponsor, meaning the amendment will have bipartisan support. RTC hopes to be able to announce that cosponsor later today or tomorrow.

    Please support these amendments by filling out this quick and simple email form.

    A vote on the House transportation bill (H.R. 7) has been delayed until after next week's Presidents Day recess, a sign that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) feels he does not have the necessary votes to pass the bill, which has been widely criticized for its drastic reduction or elimination of funding for trails, biking, walking and transit. The White House issued a statement yesterday saying that President Obama would veto this legislation in the unlikely event that it passes a House vote.

    House Republican leaders have indicated they will seek to dismantle H.R. 7 and submit its individual elements to the floor for separate discussion.

    Stay tuned to RTC's TrailBlog for the latest news from Capitol Hill on the passage of this critical legislation.

  • House Leaders Respond to Massive Opposition to Transportation Bill

    In a sign that the American Energy and Infrastructure Act (H.R. 7) may lack support to pass the House as it is currently presented, House Republican leaders announced yesterday afternoon they would dismantle H.R. 7 and submit its individual elements to the floor for separate discussion.

    With a single-minded focus on roads, the House's transportation bill would eliminate dedicated funding for trails, walking and bicycling infrastructure, the Safe Routes to Schools program, and even transit after a limited grace period.  H.R. 7 was instantly unpopular across the political spectrum and provoked an unprecedented backlash from the public, industry professionals and transportation advocates, including Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC).

    Breaking the news at just after 1 p.m. Tuesday, Bloomberg BNA said the "reversal could be an indication that Republicans lack the votes in their own caucus to pass the full package."

    According to Bloomberg, "House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.), however, characterized the dissection as a change from 'the era of quickly moving massive bills across the floor without proper examination.'"

    Kevin Mills, RTC's vice president of policy and trail development, says the House's realization of the extent of opposition to the bill should be tremendously heartening for all the groups and individuals who had emailed and called representatives to express their dismay.

    However, Mills says it is vitally important that supporters of trails, biking and walking infrastructure continue to make themselves heard in the Senate, as it also considers a bill that would hobble the popular Transportation Enhancements, Safe Routes to School and Recreational Trails programs.

    "Now that we have collectively forced proper scrutiny of misguided transportation legislation in the House, we need to turn our attention to the Senate," says Mills. "While the Senate bill as it passed committee is also deeply flawed from the standpoint of trails, bicycling and walking, Senate floor amendments could potentially repair the integrity of our core programs and thereby craft a positive alternative to the unworkable House bill."

    RTC is urging all its friends and allies to support two amendments to the Senate bill.

    Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) have introduced an amendment (Amdt. #1549) that would ensure communities a fair shot at dedicating funding for trails, walking and bicycling.

    Senator Klobuchar (D-Minn.) will introduce an amendment that would restore the Recreational Trails Program.

    Take just a few moments to complete this automated email form and tell your Senators that trails, walking and biking are an important part of America's future.

  • Belfast, Maine, Pushes Ahead With Rail-Trail Along Key Corridor

    Congratulations to the community of Belfast along Maine's central coast for its determined strides recently toward developing a new rail-trail.

    Town officials said last month they are ready to go ahead and build a walking and recreation trail along a 3.5-mile, 100-foot-wide rail right-of-way between the Armistice footbridge in downtown Belfast and the Waldo town line to the northeast.

    According to a story in Waldo Village Soup, Belfast council voted in 2010 to purchase the right-of-way along approximately three miles of the old Belfast and Moosehead Lake rail corridor for $200,000, with the intention of creating a multi-purpose trail.

    Despite widespread demand for the transportation and recreation benefits that rail-trails invariably bring, there has been some opposition to the city's proposal from a handful of residents who own land along the corridor. Landowners have expressed unfounded fears that a trail close to their property would increase vandalism, crime and dumping.

    To its credit, the city has not let threats of legal action by landowners dissuade it from building the community resource, inspired by the tremendous success of rail-trails in similar-sized communities across the region.

    When complete, the rail-trail will add much more than its own three miles to the region's trail network. The corridor will link several preserves on the west side of the Passagassawakeag River, which are managed by the Camden-based Coastal Mountains Land Trust (CMLT). CMLT has pledged $100,000 toward the city's land purchase expenses related to building the trail.

    The rail-trail will also connect to the planned Belfast Harbor Walk, which is slated to stretch from the Armistice footbridge south along the water to Steamboat Landing.

    Carl Knoch, manager of trail development for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Northeast Regional Office, visited Belfast in the fall of 2010 and was struck by the great potential of the corridor.

    "There really isn't anything like it in that region," he says. "It is fantastic to see the city acting so decisively to provide an amenity that will do so much for many residents and businesses."  

    Photos by Carl Knoch/RTC.

  • Study Finds TE Projects The Most Efficient Job Creator of All Transportation Construction

    Long appreciated by transportation planners for its construction of trails, sidewalks and bike lanes, public health professionals for allowing Americans to choose biking and walking for commuting and recreation, and local municipalities for reenergizing downtown shopping areas, the federal Transportation Enhancements (TE) program this week added yet another title its long list of accomplishments: cost effective job creator.

    A study released this week by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the Transportation Research Board found that, dollar for dollar, TE projects that were part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) allocation generated more jobs than any other form of ARRA transportation construction.

    The study of ARRA spending, conducted by state and federal planning officials and a broad technical working group, not a bike/ped or trails advocacy group, found that TE projects, the great majority of which are nonmotorized transportation infrastructure such as trails, bike paths and sidewalks, generated 17.03 full-time equivalent planning and construction jobs per $1 million invested, the most in any category of transportation investment.

    At the other end of the scale, road resurfacing represented the least efficient investment in terms of job creation, creating just more than half that rate of jobs per $1 million: 9.01.

    It was really a case of ‘daylight second.’ The TE job creation ratio of 17.03 compares to an average of 10.55; the next most efficient job creator, pavement widening, came in at 12.69 jobs per $1 million. These figures are found on page 43 of the report.

    “This study confirms what we have learned through our work in communities all over the country –trails create jobs and spark economic revitalization,” says RTC President Keith Laughlin. “As we see here, this is in part due to the proportionately greater labor requirement in their construction, but also because of their positive impact on the health and appeal of communities of all size. These findings demonstrate the importance of RTC’s commitment to protect the Transportation Enhancements program.”

    Unfortunately for all Americans during this time of high unemployment, the transportation investment delivering the least bang for its buck, road resurfacing, received by far the lion’s share of those bucks – 55 percent. On the other hand, TE projects received just four percent of the ARRA spending on transportation, while delivering an employment benefit of nearly double that of road resurfacing.

    The findings cast further doubt on the already tenuous position of those elected officials in Congress and the Senate who are exploring the elimination of TE program. Not only would they be ignoring the demands of citizens, businesspeople, planners and health officials seeking more flexible transportation options, but they would also be working against the interests of the millions of Americans out of work and looking for federal investment that creates job opportunities and robust economic growth.

    Photo of construction on the Mountain Division Rail Trail in Maine courtesy of Jamie Gemmiti Photo

  • Citizens and Elbow Grease: The Power of America's Trail Volunteers

    One of the most remarkable aspects of America's trail-building history is what so many creative and determined groups of volunteers have been able to achieve.

    Almost without exception, the catalyst for every significant trail project or funding push has come from a nucleus of residents or businesspeople, envisioning what great things the trail will offer their community, and unwilling to be defeated by sometimes massive, financial, legal or planning challenges.

    The very first trails were made by citizens and elbow grease. It is a proud tradition that continues today. Every week, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy hears of a new project, rail-trail or otherwise, being driven by volunteer labor and the generous donations of individuals and thoughtful businesses.

    Out in west-central Idaho, a group of volunteers led by a community group called Valley County Pathways recently forged a crucial piece of the new Boulder Creek Trail. Plans for the .25-mile trail along Boulder Creek near the community of Donnelly were spawned by the generous donation by Hugh L. and Georgia Ann Fulton of seven acres of wetlands to the city of Donnelly for preservation and use as an educational area.

    Late last year, 16 local volunteers (and one dog, below) built a 255-foot boardwalk through the wetland area to allow visitors to pass through and study the area without damaging its fragile habitat. In addition to the volunteer labor, the project was supported by local hardware and construction businesses.

    "We had a great group of people come out to help us, including several professional builders, and we built the whole boardwalk in two days of hard work," says Andy Olavarria, Valley County Pathways president. "The Boulder Creek project is an outstanding example of how we can blend environmental education and restoration work with the development of recreation pathways for the community to enjoy."

    The wetlands will now be called the Fulton Natural Area. Valley County Pathways is eager to work on easements with property owners in the vicinity to add more sections to the trail.

    Thanks to grants and partnership support from a wide range of agencies and nonprofit groups, from the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation to Trout Unlimited and the Central Idaho Recreation Coalition, Valley County Pathways and local volunteers will also be able to conduct streamside restoration along the creek, and create an outdoor classroom in the wetlands area for students from nearby Donnelly Elementary School. Those students have already assisted with bank-stabilization work, and built and installed interpretive signs next to the Boulder Creek Trail so the general public can learn more about the nature area. Students also are raising trout fingerlings to release into the stream and have monitored its water quality. Idaho Fish and Game volunteers have planted about 500 shrubs next to the creek to help stabilize the stream bank.

    "The Boulder Creek meadow is becoming an outdoor science lab in our backyard," says Dierdre Bingaman, the 5th grade teacher at Donnelly Elementary. "The students are definitely taking ownership. They're like, 'This is our creek, and we're going to protect it.'"

    Congratulations to Valley County Pathways and the people of Donnelly for taking such a hands-on role in their community's future.

    Are volunteers doing great trail work in your community? Let me know about it: jake@railstotrails.org

    Photos courtesy of Valley County Pathways.

  • RTC Legal Team Notches Key Win Against Conrail, Developer in Harsimus Embankment Case

    Goliath, meet David.

    Thanks to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's (RTC) remarkable legal team, led by general counsel Andrea Ferster and pro bono attorney Charles Montange, and our partners in Jersey City, the ambitious dream of a public greenway through the heart of downtown Jersey City is still alive following a crucial legal ruling announced last week.

    Last Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sustained an appeal filed by RTC, Jersey City and a local community organization, which charged Conrail's sale of the historic Harsimus Stem Embankment to a private developer with ignoring federal rail abandonment legislation.

    For the past 36 years, this railbanking legislation has made possible the conversion of hundreds of out-of-service rail corridors into public trails, transportation and recreation facilities; it's a regulation that is at the very heart of America's rail-trail movement.

    Though the precise legalese of the matter is complex, the basics of it are this: In selling the six-block site of the disused railroad embankment to a developer, which intended to tear the historic structure down and build apartments, Conrail ignored the provisions of railbanking legislation that dictates such facilities must first be offered to any local municipalities or community groups interested in converting them for interim use as a rail-trail. It is a piece of law designed to preserve the common wealth, and public usage, of these corridors.

    The win is but one step in what has been, and may continue to be, a long and drawn-out series of legal challenges. This most recent court decision held that RTC and partners merely have the right to challenge the lawfulness of Conrail's sale.

    However, reporter Heather Haddon of the Wall Street Journal wrote today that a settlement may be in the works that would protect the embankment for conversion into a greenway, while also allowing some development opportunities. Details of a potential settlement remain uncertain. 

    Since 1986, RTC's lawyers have argued the case for preserving rail corridors as public recreation and transportation assets at the local, national and federal levels in more than 50 cases, as well as before Congress and administrative agencies. RTC is the foremost, and often the only, legal advocate for rail-trails in the United States.

    For background on the Harsimus Stem Embankment--the site, the project, and the court cases--read our feature, "High Hopes for the Harsimus Embankment."

    Photo of Harsimus Embankment by RTC.

    Concept drawing courtesy of the Embankment Preservation Coalition.

  • Fitness, Family and Fun With 'The Rail Trail Chicks'

    A friend of mine started a "Fit For A Year" blog last month. The turn of the New Year is always a catalyst for people strengthening their resolve to get out and about more, eat a little healthier and work toward fitness goals.

    The idea of documenting it all with a blog, I imagine, is to help keep her motivated and to be able to track progress through the year. It's pretty cool. She doesn't have any major weight loss or mileage goals; she's not super-fit or super-unfit, just, in her own words, "a girl with a New Year's resolution trying to get the most out of life."

    Given that a lot of our work here at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) involves providing people with safe and convenient places to be active, it was great to see my friend writing about the role of her local sidewalks and trails in her daily exercise routine. So I started searching for other blogs by people leading active lives and incorporating trails into their weekdays and weekends. Turns out, there are plenty of them.

    One of my favorites was www.runningwiththegirls.com, written by Jennifer Boudreau, a mom in Maine, about running with her friends, healthy and delicious foods, and supporting the running challenges of other women like her.

    Jennifer calls her crew "The Rail Trail Chicks," because they use the Kennebec River Rail Trail, from Gardiner to Augusta, for a lot of their regular runs.

    "I have a group of women that I run with on the weekends and our favorite place to run is the KRRT," Jennifer says. "It's a beautiful trail that follows the river. We've had quite a few bald eagle sightings on our runs, and it's always a spectacular view. Part of the trail goes through downtown Hallowell, which is a gorgeous little community and is always a pleasure to run through. The trail gets tons of action with regular walkers, bikers, families, and runners, and it's a very safe place to run."

    Jennifer uses the blog to keep friends and family updated on her running goals, to connect with other runners about upcoming races and charity runs, and, at the moment, to keep The Rail Trails Chicks motivated through the chilly winter months!

    "We are actually quite bummed right now because we cannot really run on the trail due to the icy conditions," Jennifer says. "We can't wait until it starts to thaw again and we can return to the trail."

    The Rails Trails Chicks have their sights set on a couple of races on the KRRT in the spring--the Gardiner Boys & Girls Club 5k in May, and the KRRT half marathon/5k coming in June.

    It was great to check out such a cool blog about how this one rail-trail plays such an important role in helping American families stay fit and active. I'm sure there are many more like it out there in the blogosphere, so send me your favorite blogs on trails and healthy living, to jake@railstotrails.org.

    Images courtesy of www.runningwiththegirls.com.

  • The Evidence Mounts: A Tale of More Than Two Cities

    Boston and New York are vying for more than just a Super Bowl title this weekend. These two cities are also competing to be the best in the country when it comes to other foot-powered pursuits--specifically bicycling and walking.

    In a new report, Bicycling and Walking in the United States: 2012 Benchmarking Report, the Alliance for Biking & Walking ranks the 51 largest U.S. cities (and all 50 states) on bicycling and walking levels, safety, funding and other factors. Patriots fans can cheer Boston's No. 1 rating for bicycling and walking levels--but Giants fans can take heart that New York is No. 5. (Cowboys fans, take note: Dallas and Fort Worth pull up the rear at 49th and 51st, respectively.)

    In addition to the helpful city and state rankings, the report is packed with other useful information. For example, did you know the number of commuters who bicycle to work nationwide increased by 57 percent from 2000 to 2009? Or that seniors are the most vulnerable group of bicyclists and pedestrians? Or that bicycling and walking projects create almost twice as many jobs as highway projects for each $1 million spent?

    The report also highlights the health benefits of active transportation-human-powered mobility--showing that states with the highest rates of bicycling and walking have some of the lowest rates of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

    "The benchmarking report shows that biking and walking are smart solutions to many of our country's most pressing challenges when it comes to transportation, job creation and health," says Jeffrey Miller, president of the Alliance for Biking & Walking.

    The release of the report comes just as Congress takes up the next federal transportation bill, which dictates how billions of tax dollars will be spent in the next few years. The study reveals that, although 12 percent of all trips in the United States are by bike or foot, less than 2 percent of federal transportation spending goes to pedestrian and bicycle projects-a measly $2.17 per capita.

    These findings offer a powerful complement to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's (RTC) new report: Active Transportation Beyond Urban Centers: Walking and Bicycling in Small Towns and Rural AmericaThe report debunks the myth that walking and bicycling are a "big city" phenomenon--and that rural Americans can't benefit substantially from investment in bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

    To find out how your city or state ranks, visit www.PeoplePoweredMovement.org/benchmarking. You can also explore an interactive tool as part of Beyond Urban Centers that allows you to learn more about your community, including local bicycle infrastructure, congressional districts, bicycle and pedestrian fatalities and local stories of active transportation.

    Benchmarking cover courtesy of Alliance for Biking & Walking.  

  • RTC's New Report Challenges Long-Held Assumptions About Walking and Biking in Rural America

    Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) this morning released a groundbreaking report that for the first time challenges long-held assumptions about active transportation--walking and biking--in America's small towns and rural communities.

    Here at RTC we are constantly hearing stories about the importance of walking and biking outside the typical urban centers. Whether it's the economic impact of a tourist destination trail network, or the vital importance of transportation options in population centers without significant public transit, walking and biking are truly woven into the fabric of rural life.

    Yet there has long been an assumption that walking and biking are strictly "big city" phenomena--and that rural Americans can't benefit substantially from investment in bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure. It is an assumption a number of elected officials--including many who represent rural areas-  have used to argue against spending money on sidewalks, bike paths and trails in their communities.

    But RTC's important new analysis tells a much different story.

    Active Transportation Beyond Urban Centers: Walking and Bicycling in Small Towns and Rural America, released today and produced by RTC with support from SRAM and Bikes Belong, reveals the surprising prevalence of walking and bicycling in rural communities of all sizes.   

    In these smaller communities--from Idaho to Mississippi, Wisconsin to Wyoming--the rates of walking and bicycling are often comparable to what you find in large cities. In some cases, the rates are higher.

    For example, the share of work trips made by bicycle in some small towns (population 2,500 to 10,000) is nearly double that found in urban centers.

    "In the past, such studies have divided America into binary categories of either urban or rural," says Tracy Hadden Loh, RTC's research manager and co-author of Beyond Urban Centers. "That split paints an inaccurate picture of the travel patterns of millions of people."

    By recognizing the key distinctions between categories of rural and urban communities, Beyond Urban Centers presents a more complete picture of how Americans move every day. Some key findings include:

    • Among a list of transportation priorities-­including major roads and long-distance travel-rural Americans selected sidewalks more often than any other transportation need. Almost nine in 10 also cited the importance of pedestrian-friendly communities, and nearly three out of four reported that bike lanes are important.
    • The share of work trips made by bicycle in small towns is nearly double that of urban centers. Among all trips taken in rural towns of between 10,000 and 50,000 residents, just as many people bike as in the urban core. Within small towns of 2,500 to 10,000 residents, people walk for work purposes at a rate almost identical to Urban Core communities.
    • Biking, walking and trail infrastructure projects create more jobs per dollar than highway projects.

    The findings come at a crucial time for rural populations. With the United States Congress currently considering the reauthorization of a multi-year surface transportation bill, ignoring the demand for active transportation options-such as walking and biking-in small towns and rural areas would severely impact the economic, social, individual and environmental health of these communities.

    At the report's launch in downtown Washington, D.C.--hosted by the National Association of Realtors--representatives of both the bike and real estate industries gave their testimony about the great importance walking and biking infrastructure has on house sales, the survival of small businesses and the economic engine of the main street retail and housing sector in rural America.

    Beyond Urban Centers underscores that the federal government has played a critical role in enabling walking and biking in rural areas through programs such as Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to School. Continued federal investment in active transportation infrastructure is cost-effective and essential to a balanced transportation system that meets the needs of all Americans. Contrary to preconceptions, those needs are at least as critical in small town America as in larger cities.

    "Small communities need safe and convenient walking and bicycling facilities just as much as big cities," says Kevin Mills, RTC's vice president of policy and trail development, and Beyond Urban Centers co-author. "To meet this need, Transportation Enhancements, the nation's top source for active transportation investment, has provided twice the funding per capita in rural America than in big cities."

    To learn the role biking and walking have played in your community, explore an interactive online tool at www.railstotrails.org/beyondurbancenters. You can search the map to reveal bicycle infrastructure in your area, local stories of active transportation, county health data, congressional districts and bicycle and pedestrian fatalities.

  • Chicago Heights Breaks Through on Key Section of Old Plank Road Trail

    The saying "anything worthwhile is worth waiting for" may well have been coined by a rail-trail builder. As America's growing community of trail supporters, volunteers, planners and managers can attest to, trails projects often take time. The complex legal, financial and political issues surrounding land ownership and conversion have seen some trails projects take 20 years or more, from vision to fruition.

    About 30 miles south of Chicago, in Cook County, Ill., trail advocates are this week celebrating a breakthrough moment in the long-awaited development of the Old Plank Road Trail.

    The initial sections of the Old Plank were built in 1997, along the out-of-service Michigan Central Rail Road line. It has since become part of a larger trail known as the Grand Illinois Trail, looping 500 miles through northern Illinois between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River.

    Like many longer trails systems, however, the Grand Illinois Trail has been plagued by a number of missing links--sections of the route without a dedicated non-motorized pathway, where riders and hikers are forced to use road or sidewalk. Over the years, these missing links have been filled in as money and planning allowed.

    However, none was more tricky than a short section of less than a mile through the city of Chicago Heights. For the last decade, a continual series of efforts failed to bring about a non-motorized trail along a .8-mile stretch that would have extended the Old Plank Road Trail from where it abruptly ended at Western Avenue, east to an extensive trail system at Thorn Creek and, eventually, to Indiana and the Chicago lakefront via the Pennsy Greenway and Burnham Greenway Trail.

    Finally, the end is in sight, with the news this month that the city of Chicago Heights has signed off on a preliminary engineering report for a multi-use trail across the missing link, an event that supporters are describing as an "all systems go" announcement.

    As advocates note, it took the terms of four Chicago Height mayors to reach this point. Current Mayor David Gonzalez's commitment to the project continued the momentum generated by his predecessor, Alex Lopez, and Alderman Willie White. Both Lopez and White have since passed away. The completion of the Old Plank Road Trail will be just part of both men's significant legacy.

    A federal Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant paid for an Active Transportation Plan for the community, creating widespread acknowledgment of the need for more biking and walking infrastructure in the area. Design costs and the budget for construction have been secured by a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement grant, recognition of trails' tremendous value not only as recreational amenities but also vital transportation solutions in urban areas.

    A community working bee late last year in a park at Thorn Creek (right), which was attended by Mayor Gonzalez, was seen by locals as a key moment in galvanizing community energy for the project.

    "Connecting communities is where trails meet the 'triple bottom line' - economic impact, environmental stewardship, and health and wellness," says Steve Buchtel, executive director of Trails for Illinois. "Connecting this historic city to the region's trail network enhances nearly every initiative the city is undertaking, including community wellness programs, bike and pedestrian planning, and a new downtown transit center."

    Despite the project looking decidedly like a "no-brainer," Buchtel is conscious that behind every champagne cork moment like this is a core of dedicated people who kept pushing even when there was barely a light at the end of the tunnel. He made special mention of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and the National Parks Service Rivers, Trails and Conservation program for continuing to support the project even as it fell in and out of political favor.

    "They were stalwart advocates to finish this trail, even as at those times when the city was difficult to work with," he says. "They showed patience and perseverance, making their case and waiting for the leadership in Chicago Heights to start connecting the trail's benefits with their residents' needs."

    Opposition to the trail came in part from residents who believed that a pathway through the historically poor neighborhood on the south side of Chicago Heights would encourage additional criminal activity in the area. It is a refrain familiar to urban trail proponents. In cities across the country, countless trail projects have been held up by the unfounded concerns that opening up depressed, underserved sections of the city will present a public safety hazard to trail users and neighborhoods nearby.

    Yet time and time again, the opposite occurs. Increased foot traffic and community activity has been shown to decrease crime and delinquency, and as trail users, local residents and businesses develop "ownership" of the trail, improvement projects and maintenance transform neglected areas with gardens, parks, murals, orchards and markets.

    As a local resident, Diane Banta, who works for the National Park Service Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance program, has tremendous enthusiasm for what the completed trail will bring to the people of Chicago Heights, and the broader region.

    "It will serve an incredibly important public health purpose by encouraging walking and biking, and it will provide the connectivity that all communities these days are striving for," Banta says. "Not only that, but it makes Chicago Heights the hub of all this trails activity. It's really very exciting."

    Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is excited to be a part of this transformation. This year we will be using funds from our Metropolitan Grants Program, funded by The Coca-Cola Foundation, to install a number of benches along the trail and help with the establishment of a trailside garden.

    Photo of working bee at Thorn Creek courtesy of Diane Banta.
    Photo of Old Plank Road Trail by RTC.
    Map courtesy of dnr.state.il.us


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