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Rail-with-Trail a Natural Fit for Busy Cities

Though it is true that the rail-trail movement in America was born from a need to better utilize out-of-service rail corridors, much has changed since the pioneering railbanking legislation was passed more than 25 years ago.

The first rail-trails were recreational pathways through largely wild and rural areas. But now, rail-trails have spread in both their mileage and influence, to form bustling commuter routes in big cities, and avenues to connect inner-city residents with open spaces, and each other. This evolution of rail-trails has paralleled the development of a more dynamic understanding of urban growth, and a focus among planners in recent years on density and connectivity as keys to building more sustainable human habitats.

All of these themes came together last week in Washington, D.C., for Rail~Volution 2011, a series of workshops and symposiums on the role of transit, and transit-oriented development, in shaping urban landscapes that are socially, environmentally and economically more intuitive.

Though at first look it might not appear that Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) would be a natural partner to these discussions, given that many of our projects rely on the abandonment of rail service, in fact a growing focus of our work these days is on trails that run parallel to, and complement, existing transit systems.

Rail-with-trail projects combine the benefits of walking and biking pathways with convenient access to urban transit. With the number of abandonments steadily decreasing since the mid-1990s, and cities looking for creative transportation designs for booming populations, rail-with-trail is often a cost-effective and efficient solution.

RTC's 2009 study of rails-with-trails in California found that rail-with-trail mileage has increased fivefold in the past decade, up from 11.4 miles in 2000 to 60 miles by the end of 2009.

In the D.C. area, the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which runs for eight miles next to Metro's Red Line, MARC commuter service and active CSX freight and Amtrak lines, allows people to commute by bike or foot to the heart of the nation's capital from Silver Spring and Takoma Park, among a number of burgeoning neighborhoods.

Kelly Pack, RTC's director of trail development, is involved with promoting use of the Met Branch Trail and led a workshop at this year's Rail~Volution. She says that rail lines were built to provide a direct route between important residential or commercial centers, and are therefore perfect avenues for trails to follow.

"Cities these days are putting more effort into their pedestrian and bike networks. But at the same time, urban space is getting tight," Pack says. "Existing rail lines are natural corridors. More often than not the right-of-way is wide enough to accommodate a trail, they are built at grade, and they are already going where people want to go."

Pack says that a potential sticking point in building a trail next to a rail line can be the railroad owners' liability concerns--if anyone is injured or killed on the tracks, the owner can be sued. However, the evidence of rail-with-trail projects tells us that building a dedicated biking and walking trail next to a rail line, with appropriate barrier and safety precautions, cuts the likelihood of such incidents to almost zero.

"Reassuring rail operators that they are in fact reducing their exposure is one of the main challenges for rail-with-trail proponents," Pack says.

Another is state legislation. Some states have updated their State Recreation Use Statutes to explicitly include railroads. This measure provides another layer of liability protection to the railroads. In states such as Virginia and Maine, innovative legislation has extended the protection inherent in recreational use statutes to the owners of railroads. In the same way that a farmer is not liable if a mountain biker breaks her leg on a section of the farm's right-of-way, so too are rail owners protected in case of accidents on a rail-with-trail. The more legislation there is like this, the more railroad companies and transit agencies will be open to trail proposals.

In California, there are at least five more rails-with-trails in various stages of development, including major projects such as the Coastal and Inland Rail Trails in San Diego County, the Coastal Rail Trail in Santa Cruz County, and the SMART corridor in Sonoma and Marin counties.

These urban pathways will soon join the Met Branch Trail, the Connecticut Riverwalk and Bikeway in Massachusetts, the Springwater Corridor in Oregon, and dozens more rails-with-trails across the country, in providing millions of Americans with convenient and safe access to an efficient active transportation network.

Photo of the Metropolitan Branch Trail (top) by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Photo of the Martin Luther King Promenade in California courtesy of TrailLink.com.

Posted Sun, Oct 30 2011 1:45 PM by Jake Lynch


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