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RTC TrailBlog

  • RTC Launches Development of Game-Changing Trail Planning Tool

    Earlier this month, RTC announced the launch of T-MAP (Trail Modeling and Assessment Platform), a three-year, $1.2-million initiative with the potential to set a new standard for trail planning in America. In partnership with researchers and trail managers in 12 U.S. cities, RTC will lead the first-ever nationwide survey of urban trail use and produce planning models and metrics that can forecast the returns on investment that trails stimulate around the country. 

    This project comes at a time when active transportation is on the rise in America, but requires a critical boost to move to the next level.

    There are more than 21,000 miles of rail-trails in the United States, and many of America’s 300 million citizens need cars to access them. In some communities, the lack of connectivity to basic  destinations such as places of employment, grocery stores and schools limits people’s livelihood and, to put it simply, their ability to thrive.

    That’s where T-MAP comes in.

    Decision-makers give considerable credence to quantitative methods for planning and prioritizing transportation investments. Such forecasting tools have been used in the highway planning process for decades, but have only recently begun to be developed for trail, bicycle and pedestrian investments. As a result, road projects are defined as needs, while trail projects are often considered amenities.

    Now, with T-MAP, trail planners will have instruments that communicate the most efficient and powerful ways to integrate our trails into networks that make the biggest impact and/or result in dollars saved on transportation, healthcare, tourism and economic development. 

    T-MAP will tell us what we’ve shared as a community through stories, but with a scientific angle that helps us make real arguments for connected trails and more walking and biking facilities.

    The T-MAP project includes three core models:

    • A GIS-based method for measuring trail-system connectivity: How well are the trails connecting us to the places we need to go? 
    • A trail-use demand factoring and forecasting model: How many people are using the trails, and how would this demand grow with the right additions or enhancements?
    • A set of impact assessment tools that translate trail use into dollars related to health and transportation impacts: What is the dollar value trail use provides in terms of healthcare savings and economic impact?

    By revealing how America is using trails, T-MAP will help developers prioritize projects that can maximize trail use and benefits. Trail-planning analysis will rise to the same level of sophistication as analysis for highways and major infrastructure. 

    When complete, we anticipate that T-MAP will be fundamental for connecting people, places and neighborhoods, spurring connections that turn walking and biking into mainstream modes of travel and transportation. 

    RTC is extremely excited to be a part of this game-changing project for trail planning, and we look forward to providing future updates over the next few years.

    In the meantime, to learn more about T-MAP, check out the project Web page at www.railstotrails.org/TMAP

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    Tracy Hadden Loh is RTC's research director as well as the lead researcher for the T-MAP project.

  • RTC’s Marianne Wesley Fowler Named 2014 Rail-Trail Champion

     

    RTC is excited to announce Marianne Wesley Fowler of Alexandria, Va., as this year’s Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champion—a designation honoring Fowler’s incredible contributions to RTC and the rail-trail movement over the past two-and-a-half decades. 

    Established through the generous support of the Doppelt family, this award program was designed to honor individuals who have made significant contributions to the rail-trail movement through their work, volunteerism or support—in short, people who have gone above and beyond in the name of trails.

    Since joining the RTC team in 1988, Fowler has played an incredible role in the development and support of rail-trails across the country. As southern organizer in the late 1980s and early 1990s, she helped bring about the region’s first rail-trail networks, including the creation of the now-legendary Silver Comet/Chief Ladiga Trail and the early identification of the Atlanta BeltLine as a potential rail-with-trail in her 1991 "Abandoned Rail Corridor Assessment Report" of the Atlanta Metropolitan Area.

    Later, as a leader of RTC’s policy advocacy team, she was pivotal in helping to protect hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds for trails, and walking and biking infrastructure—having played an active part in the reauthorization of four federal transportation acts, including ISTEA, TEA-21, SAFETEA-LU and MAP-21—and was also key in the establishment of the Recreational Trails Program and the Safe Routes to School Program.

    She has also been critical to protecting the federal railbanking statute, and served as a lead national organizer for the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program (NTPP)—in which infrastructural improvements in four U.S. cities have thus far resulted in 85 million miles of active transportation as opposed to driving. 

    With her designation as a Rail-Trail Champion, she joins the ranks of a select group of men and women who’ve made remarkable contributions to rail-trails, including the late Fred Meijer, founder of the Fred Meijer Trails Network, the U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the late Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar, and Joshua David and Robert Hammond, founders of New York’s High Line.

    “Marianne has been a pinnacle player in the rail-trail movement, and her advocacy has helped establish walking and biking networks around the country,” said Keith Laughlin, president of RTC. “We’re pleased to honor a person who’s been a true game-changer to active transportation in America.”

    In the 2014 Green Issue of Rails to Trails magazine, launching on June 11, Fowler—RTC’s resident storyteller—will talk about the early days of the rail-trail movement, defending federal funds in Congress, and the creation and success of NTPP. As she talks about these moments in rail-trail history, her passion—never wavering in 25 years—is evident. 

    Later this year, RTC will honor her in a special event to commemorate her achievements.  Stay tuned!

     

    Left photos: Marianne Wesley Fowler; right photo: Marianne with Rep. James Oberstar (1934 - 2014) and Rep. Tom Petri in 2012. 

  • Bike Advocacy: Why Teton County Commissioner Melissa Turley Is Truly Inspired

     

    The trail world is filled with inspiring people. Some are folks that use and celebrate the pathways in their community on a daily basis. Others are champions, enacting change and making decisions that help the trails movement. And some, like Teton County, Wyo.’s Commissioner Melissa Turley, are both.

    In her role as county commissioner, a position that she has held for a little more than a year, she has developed and adopted the first-ever strategic plan for the Board of County Commissioners focused on a shared vision to ensure a healthy community, environment and economy for Teton County. Turley was also a strong supporter of the construction of two vital sections of pathways in Jackson Hole, which connect communities within the valley and strengthen the existing trail system. She has a lot on her plate, but she makes active transportation a priority and frequently integrates it into her mission as an elected official.

    I caught up with Turley to learn more about her involvement with the trails in Teton County and to find out what her most memorable experiences on bikes and trails have been so far.

    Here’s what she had to say:

    1. Her first overnight ride with her mom

    “Both of my parents were avid cyclists,” affirms Turley. Her mom took her on her first overnight trip as a 12-year-old girl, a one-night tour that Turley says was incredibly empowering. But it wasn’t just touring that Turley’s parents brought to her. “[Growing up], bikes were a way of life, whether for transportation, riding to Sunday brunch, racing or long-distance rides,” states Turley. Cycling as a lifestyle has stuck with her to this day. 

    2. Riding the trail to Grand Teton National Park

    Jackson, Wyo., is a gateway town to both Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. Thanks to the hard work of many agencies, organizations and individuals, there is a paved bike path that begins in the town of Jackson and runs 15 miles north into the Grand Tetons, flanked on one side by the National Elk Refuge and on the other by the majestic peaks of the Teton Range. 

    Turley says she loves riding that section of trail because of all her fellow riders, adding that it provides a transportation and recreation outlet for locals while shining a spotlight on the community. 

    3. Commuting to teach her spin class 

    Not limiting herself to biking outside, Turley has been spinning indoors for more than 10 years. She joined the ranks as an instructor in 2012. Weather permitting, Turley rides her bike to teach her spin classes. And an extra bonus: “It’s a great warm-up and cool-down!” 

    4. Seeing community support for bike trails

    The outpouring of support for community pathways is inspiring to Turley, and this goes beyond just trail use. “Any time a ballot initiative comes up that would help fund bike or pedestrian projects, it is passed by the voters by an overwhelming majority,” Turley reports. To complement the point, she mentions an inspiring mode shift that took place last summer when major construction took place at one of the central intersections in town. Instead of driving, many people hopped on their bikes to avoid the extra traffic around the site.

    “I had people approaching me and telling me that they were surprised at how much they enjoyed commuting by bike; it didn’t take that much longer to arrive and it was surprisingly fun and low stress!”

    Turley touts the benefits that trails bring to the environmental, health and economic sectors of a community. “By supporting pathways and other bike infrastructure, we make it easier for those who do choose to drive. We all win when we get people out of their cars,” she says.

    5. Riding with her son George

    Instead of being stuck in a hot car, the mother-and-son duo are riding together.

    “I commute with [my son] as much as I can,” says Turley. “It is a fun way to get around! We can talk, play and laugh; we interact with each other and our community.” 

    Turley wants to instill the same values in George that her parents instilled in her—that cycling is not just for recreation or exercise, it can also be transportation and a release. 

    “On my bike is where I find my peace,” states Turley. “I want to be teaching that to George. I want him to find that peace as well.”

     

    Top and right photos courtesy of Melissa Turley; left photo courtesy of Friends of Pathways.

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    Katie Harris is a member of RTC's policy team. She is a frequent user and advocate of active transportation and recently completed a bike trip across the United States.

  • Senate’s Turn Part I: Senate Committee Takes On the Transportation Reauthorization Bill

    Last week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed a bill (S. 2322) to reauthorize MAP-21, the federal transportation legislation passed in 2012, which will expire at the end of September. The new bill seeks to fund transportation projects at status quo levels plus inflation through fiscal year 2020. The underlying premise of the bill is that transportation policies should not change substantially but should only be marginally refined, that long-term funding is critical for large infrastructure projects and that the current funding levels are acceptable.  

    Three other Senate committees need to mark up the bill before the full Senate will act. A key to that process will be to identify a bipartisan solution to expected funding shortfalls.

    While there are not far-reaching policy changes in the bill, several refinements would affect trail, walking and bicycling programs. Specifically, the bill—

    1.  Amends the Transportation Alternatives Program, the core federal source for dollars to build trail systems. This includes the following:

    • A greater portion of Transportation Alternatives projects (two-thirds rather than half) would be distributed by population and would be allocated by regional planning agencies rather than state departments of transportation.
    • Nonprofit organizations with responsibility for local transportation safety programs, such as Safe Routes to School, would be eligible to receive funds.
    • States would assume responsibility to report annually on their spending. Note, however, that RTC has collected information very similar to this from states for the Transportation Alternatives Program and previously did so for Transportation Enhancements. All of this information will be available on the Transportation Alternatives Data Exchange on the RTC website.

    2.  Provides significant funding for two programs that could be used for active transportation projects: 1) The Projects of National or Regional Significance program, which would help fund large projects that could include pedestrian or bicycle elements; and 2) American Transportation Awards, which could provide up to $10 million in funding for states or Metropolitan Planning Organizations to promote the use of best practices, including integration into larger projects and connecting trails to promote cycling and walking.

    3.  Continues the TIGER program, which has funded a number of pedestrian and bike networks.

    4.  Amends the Highway Safety Improvement Program performance measures to explicitly include non-motorized transportation serious injuries and fatalities. As Sen. Jeff Merkley noted at the mark-up, pedestrian and bicycle fatalities have risen, so it is important to focus on solutions.

    5.  Continues the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program, a successful low-interest loan program that has been used to provide leverage for transportation projects over $50 million. Smaller projects have not benefited because of the floor on project size and the cost of applying. The bill would lower the threshold to $10 million for projects located within walking distance from certain transit facilities. These projects could include active transportation elements. The TIFIA program would also provide $2 million per year to cover administrative fees for projects smaller than $75 million.

    The Committee remains open to addressing specific unresolved issues for which bipartisan consensus can be achieved. The bill has yet to be considered by the Senate Finance Committee, the Senate Banking Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee. Stay tuned!

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    Kevin Mills is RTC’s Senior Vice President of Policy and Trail Development, and instigator of the Partnership for Active Transportation.

  • Notice: Upcoming Railroad Abandonment in Kiowa County, Colo.

    RECEIVE RAILROAD ABANDONMENT NOTICES FOR YOUR STATE VIA E-MAIL 

    On or about May 14, 2014, V & S Railway filed for the abandonment of 38 miles of track between Towner and Eads in Kiowa County, Colo. We are providing this information because it presents an opportunity to develop a real regional asset: a multi-use trail that can accommodate hikers, bikers, equestrians and other appropriate uses.

    NEXT STEPS: If this corridor is suitable for trail use, we strongly urge local trail advocates, or an appropriate local, regional or state agency or organization, to take action now. A “boiler plate” letter (found here) can be filed with the Surface Transportation Board (STB) and the abandoning railroad using STB docket number AB-603 (sub-no. 3x). Filing this letter does not commit its authors to acquire the corridor; it merely gives time to develop a rail-trail proposal and undertake negotiations with the railroad. According to the information we have received, the deadline for filing this letter is June 13, 2014. Even if this deadline is missed, there is probably still time to contact the relevant parties, since the railroad may have experienced a delay in filing all of the paperwork, or the STB may still have jurisdiction over the corridor. However, it is important to take prompt action. The STB posts all abandonment decisions and filings on its website, including the complete filing for this corridor. More information on the rail corridor, including a map, can be found in this filing, or view a clearer map of the approximate route here.

    The STB has imposed a $250 filing fee for all railbanking requests. Entities filing a railbanking request may request a fee waiver or reduction, and government agencies will receive an automatic fee waiver. Throughout the process, make sure local government officials and citizen activists are kept informed of the project’s progress. We also recommend contacting your state trails coordinator or your state bicycle/pedestrian coordinator.

    Both of these individuals are knowledgeable about state laws and resources and may be able to assist your community with this rail-trail project. Also, you may want to contact the abandoning railroad to add your name to their service list.

    ADDITIONAL RESOURCES AVAILABLE: RTC’s website may provide valuable tools as you plan for a rail-trail, including how-to manuals, the Trail-Building Toolbox, our Publications Library and the Trails & Greenways Listserv for trail advocates and professionals. These resources can be found within the “Trail-Building” section of our website. If you take advantage of this information and other resources promptly, you will be well on your way to creating a successful rail-trail in your community. For more information, or if you decide to pursue railbanking, please contact Eli Griffen at eli@railstotrails.org.

  • First Georgia Trail Summit in 15 Years Strong on Vision and Can-Do

    In mid-April in Athens, Ga., 150 people took part in the first Georgia Trail Summit in 15 years.  

    The tone was moderate and corporate friendly—yet no less visionary.

    Jo Claire Hickson of the Savannah-based Coastal Georgia Greenway called for an inventory of trails as well as for protecting corridors and anticipating connections. She proposed a one-year, government-university trails study that “the governor we elect in 2014 can consider for policy adoption.” 

    Jim Langford of MillionMile Greenway (MMG), the organization that coordinated the summit, noted a great commonality among communities and their needs and plans, and great enthusiasm for new trail ideas. He also noted a desire among attendees for more meetings of this kind and the desire “to do this in a nonprofit way instead of government.” 

    But of course, there were more questions than answers.

    “We don’t have answers yet to where public funding will come from, through which agencies and [for what purposes it will be applied],” said Langford. “The time is right to get legislators together. They need to hear some successes…and that the movement is broad based and not led by a single organization.”

    It was two Atlanta-based organizations—the PATH Foundation and the Atlanta BeltLine—that showed the way for getting trails built. Both championed private-public partners and privately driven nonprofit leadership.

    PATH Foundation is a trail-building dynamo that, in the last 23 years, has put up some 200 miles of trail, including the widely used 61.5-mile Silver Comet Trail. PATH’s ambition is to make Atlanta the best trail-connected city in America, with its work centering on a 20-year vision newly advanced by $14.33 million raised to build 37 more miles of trail. 

    The 33-mile Atlanta BeltLine—when complete—will connect 45 in-town neighborhoods, public parks and commuter rail. It will run directly through the third level of the million-square-foot multi-purpose Ponce City Market that developers emphasize will have bike valet, changing facilities and showers to encourage alternative commuting options. 

    Ryan Gravel was responsible for initiating the BeltLine idea as a Georgia Tech graduate. “People along the route have discovered a vision better than anybody else was showing them,” said Gravel. “They’re filling it out with affordable and public housing, art, farmers’ markets, local food, pollinators and bocce ball courts. People are really organizing their lives around this new corridor. It lets them live the lives they want.”

    He added, “We’re not only dramatically changing the physical form of the city and how people connect, but we’re changing our cultural expectations. This is huge for a city generally considered the poster child for sprawl. Looking ahead, it’s a different world.”

    A summary report of the summit has called for annual meetings, a statewide strategic trails plan and educating legislators. For the complete report and for additional Georgia trail resources, go to http://georgiatrailsummit.com/resources

    Top photo: Attendees of the Georgia Trail Summit at a workshop at Murmur Railroad Trestle in Athens, Ga. Photo courtesy of Georgia Trail Summit.

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    Herb Hiller works for the East Coast Greenway Alliance and frequently writes about trails and active transportation in Georgia.

  • Bike to Work Day - The Power of Just Being There

    What does riding a bike mean to you?

    Is it your only mode of transportation and vital for you to get from A to B? Or do you just like to go for a spin on the weekend with friends?

    If you're anything like me, it's somewhere in the middle. Riding a bike doesn't define you. But it's something great in your life that makes it easier to get around, to stay fit and active, and to be free from the hassles of being dependent on a car and dealing with traffic.

    There's a lot of joy in riding a bike! And that's why Bike to Work Day has grown into the wonderful, nationwide party that it is today.

    For one day in May, in communities across America, rookies and seasoned veterans alike gather along popular bike routes to celebrate their pedal-powered commute and learn more about the advocacy groups working hard to make riding safer and more convenient.

    But it's important to remember that Bike to Work Day is also about demonstrating to lawmakers and transportation officials that, yes, riding a bike is a transportation choice for millions of Americans, and this mode needs to be supported in our transportation policies.

    So, just by showing up and taking part, you are adding one more body to the booming crowd and demonstrating to the powers-that-be just how many Americans regularly ride a bike.

    Who knew advocacy could be so simple? You might even enjoy yourself...

    Bike to Work Day is often held on a different day in May, dependent on the organizers in your community. So get in touch with your local bike advocacy groups, if you know them, or google "Bike to Work Day" and the name of your community to see what's happening locally. Pedal on.

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    Jake Lynch is RTC’s marketing and media relations specialist. Born and raised in the wilds of rural Australia, Jake now helps tell the story of America’s rail-trails, from big cities to one-horse towns and everywhere in between. 

  • The Profitable Tail of the Silver Comet Trail

    I recently pedaled the Silver Comet Trail from Smyrna, Ga., a suburb north of Atlanta, to Cedartown, a small city with an historic downtown near the Alabama border. My ride through the mostly wooded countryside was so pleasant, I didn’t want it to end. 

    Apparently, I’m not alone. 

    A 2013 study by the Northwest Georgia Regional Planning Commission recommends more than doubling the length of the Silver Comet Trail at its “tail” endwith spurs to nearby commercial centers and longer extensions to Marietta, Rome and Atlanta’s growing bike-path network. 

    As illustrated in their 2013 “Silver Comet Trail Economic Impact Assessment and Planning Study,” trails are well-established economic engines. 

    The study finds that every dollar invested in trails creates at least three dollars of return from tourism and recreation-related activities like equipment rentals, restaurants and lodging. 

    As an added note: Some studies have documented much higher rates of return, such as 900 percent in North Carolina’s Outer Banks and 1,180 percent in Kansas City!

    In its present 61-mile makeup, 1.9 million users flock to the Silver Comet Trail each year, which got its name from the train that once sped passengers between New York City and Birmingham, Ala. Survey results conclude that Silver Comet Trail users generate $57 million in direct spending annually on food, clothing, lodging and other trip-related items. 

    One of the beneficiaries: Frankie’s Italian Restaurant in Rockmart, where cyclists can memorialize their rides by writing on a wall of fame!

    The $57 million of direct spending estimated by the study creates an additional $61 million in indirect impact as dollars ripple through the economy. The total spending of almost $120 million in Georgia supports roughly 1,300 jobs and $37 million in earnings. In addition, the combined direct and indirect spending generates roughly $3.5 million in income tax, sales tax and business tax revenues.

    Many trail users live in communities that are not adjacent to the trail; the study documents trail users from 23 counties in 8 different states—some as far away as Washington. 

    Ramona Ruark, Cedartown Main Street director, adds that the visitor log in the Cedartown Welcome Center—a replica of the city's original train station—documents trail users from other countries as well. 

    More than one-fifth of the people who responded to a 2013 survey stay overnight when visiting the trail—not surprising since roughly 15-million people live outside Georgia but within a 150-mile radius of the Silver Comet Trail. In fact, the study found that these bicycle tourists spend roughly $20 million annually on their visits.

    Jackie Crum, owner of the Ragsdale Inn just off the trail in Dallas, estimates that more than half of her guests are Silver Comet Trail riders. “Tourism is wonderful for the local economy,” she explains. “It generates income without the infrastructure needs and tax burdens of residential development.” 

    Now, let’s talk about property values…

    Several organizations have calculated the residential property value increases associated with proximity to trails and green space. A fact sheet from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy reports that properties along a trail in Brown County, Wis., fetched a 9 percent premium, and a regional greenway in Apex, N.C., added $5,000 to the sales price of adjacent homes in the Shepherd’s Vineyard development. 

    The Silver Comet Trail study summarizes that trails are responsible for a 4 to 7 percent increase in property value for homes within one-quarter mile. The study also estimates that the trail is capable of attracting developers to build new houses on vacant land near the trail with a value of up to $41 million, generating an additional half-million dollars in property tax revenue. 

    Trail-adjacent business owners are excited about the proposal to double the length of the trail. Longer trails mean more riders, more business, more jobs, more tax revenues and, consequently, more prosperity. 

    Photos by Rick Pruetz.  Top: Silver Comet Trail wildlife area; top right: Historic Downtown Dallas, Ga.; middle left: Frankie's Italian Restaurant in Rockmart, Ga.; bottom right: Jackie Crum in front of the Ragsdale Inn in Dallas, Ga.

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    Rick Pruetz is a planning consultant specializing in open space preservation. He is also an avid cyclist and occasionally writes about the economic benefits of rail trails. 

  • Obama Bill Offers Way Forward on Active Transportation

    This week, the White House and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx put forward the GROW AMERICA Act, a bill which would increase funding for transportation infrastructure in the United States. GROW AMERICA includes provisions that could support the development of active transportation networks; that is, infrastructure for human-powered modes of transportation such as walking and biking. 

    The Act promotes the use of transportation infrastructure as “Ladders of Opportunity” to ensure that every individual in our country has an opportunity to work and to succeed. Key parts of that vision include enhancing active transportation networks by building more trails, sidewalks and bike lanes and increasing pedestrian and bicycle safety. 

    Some highlights of the Act are as follows:   

    1. The Act designates some metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs)—the local authorities for coordinating transportation planning in metropolitan areas—as ‘high-performance’ and allocates to them an additional 50 percent of Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) funds; TAP is the main federal program that enables trails and other walking and bicycling facilities to be built. This would empower metropolitan areas that are most able to lead with capacity to accelerate development of active transportation networks. 
    2. The Act focuses on connectivity between active transportation, public transportation and roads, with particular attention to disadvantaged areas. It establishes funding for a pilot program that would allow up to 10 metropolitan areas to inventory gaps in connectivity and implement projects that address them. It also establishes a National Connectivity Performance Measure focused on increasing connectivity for low-income communities and people with limited transportation options, creating ladders of opportunities for these individuals.
    3. The Act makes the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act of 1998 (TIFIA), which leverages private financing of transportation projects, more accessible for smaller projects. Specifically, it enables the U.S. Department of Transportation to pay fees associated with establishing these projects. However, the provision would be more effective in aiding active transportation networks if it also reduced the size of projects that are eligible.
    4. The Act promotes the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists by requiring states to implement activities designed to decrease deaths and injuries resulting from accidents. Additionally, if excess highway safety funds are transferred for the purpose of providing additional grants to the states, the act requires that at least 30 percent of those transferred funds must be used for the purpose of pedestrian and bicycle safety if pedestrian and bicycle fatalities are more than 5 percent of the state’s total.
    5. The Act establishes a new Transportation Trust Fund to replace the existing Highway Trust Fund, recognizing the fact that the new Trust Fund would support a complete transportation system that includes public transit and active transportation—not just highways.

    The Act also retains funding for the Transportation Alternative Program (TAP), which includes the Recreational Trails Program, a vital funding source for recreational trails and related facilities around the country.  

    RTC will work to support and improve provisions that will enhance trails and active transportation networks, and make it safer to walk and bike. We must ensure that the federal government provides increased support for years to come, and implements these program in a way that will make the most of the resources and opportunities available. 

    Photo courtesy of Adam Fagen via Flickr

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    Patrick Wojahn recently joined RTC as the director of government relations. He focuses on national, state and local policy efforts to build broad support for trails across America.

  • The 2014 Inductee to the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame Is…

    What do you think makes a great rail-trail? 

    We feel it’s much more than just the trail itself. For most people, the scenery is the big draw. Rail-trails can transport us to some of America’s most beautiful places—along rivers, through forests and mountain ranges and far from the maddening crowd.

    But what about the wonderful trailside communities, shops, B&Bs and restaurants? And compelling information about the rail corridor’s history? Or the enormous utility of the trail because it connects to schools and parks and work places? Or the passionate and generous volunteer group that keeps the trail maintained?

    It’s these extra details—the tales beyond the trail—that separate a great trail from a trail worthy of induction into Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.

    Which brings us to some good news. RTC is very pleased to announce that the Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail is to be the latest inductee.

    The Virginia Creeper, which runs 34 miles through Grayson and Washington counties in Virginia’s southwest, is one of the region’s most prominent recreational draws, and is credited for the economic rejuvenation of a number of local communities that were suffering from the decline of some industries that had supported the region.

    And the success of the Virginia Creeper is now inspiring the creation of new rail-trail plans throughout the region as business leaders and advocates see concrete proof that not only are destination trails loved and appreciated by local residents, they are also valuable economic assets whose benefits spread throughout the community.

    RTC’s own president, Keith Laughlin, rode the Virginia Creeper a little while back—and to this day still raves about the experience. “It’s a truly beautiful part of the world,” he remembers. “In addition to the remarkable scenery, those mountains of southern Appalachia are rich with a fascinating railroad history that adds an extra dimension to rail-trails like the Creeper. And towns like Damascus and Abingdon have done a wonderful job of welcoming visitors and making the trail an integral part of their communities.”

    RTC began formally recognizing exemplary rail-trails around the country in 2007. The first Rail-Trail Hall of Fame inductees were the Great Allegheny Passage (Pa./Md.), the Katy Trail State Park (Mo.) and the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail (Fla.). The most recent addition was the Greenbrier River Trail in West Virginia. 

    Deservedly, the Virginia Creeper finds itself in good company as the 27th inductee into the Hall of Fame.

    Hall of Fame inductees are selected on merits such as scenic value, high use, trail and trailside amenities, historical significance, excellence in management and maintenance of facility, community connections and geographic distribution. The Virginia Creeper is a model in each of these areas.

    To learn more about this wonderful rail-trail, check out our own Laura Stark’s great Trail of the Month feature on the Virginia Creeper. And for those in the area, stay tuned; we’ll be hosting an RTC Hall of Fame celebration and induction ceremony along the Virginia Creeper later this year.

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    Jake Lynch is RTC’s marketing and media relations specialist. Born and raised in the wilds of rural Australia, Jake now helps tell the story of America’s rail-trails, from big cities to one-horse towns and everywhere in between. 

  • Top 10 Trails in Minnesota

     

    In April, we asked the residents and visitors of Minnesota to tell us which trails deserve a Top 10 accolade. And the great responses we received just go to show that there are many stars in the North Star State!

    While we unfortunately can’t shout out all the trails with votes, we can shout out Minnesotans for being so passionate about their trails and trail networks.  

    To close out Minnesota Month in April, RTC is pleased to present this list of Top 10 Trails in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.


    1. Root River State Trail

    Fillmore and Houston counties

    Part of a larger 60-mile system referred to by some as the “Cadillac of Bike Trails,” the 42-mile Root River State Trail is known for the limestone bluffs, wildlife, wooden bridges and Scandinavian towns that can be found off the old railroad right-of-way along the river.

     

     

    2. Paul Bunyan State Trail

    Beltrami, Cass, Crow Wing and Hubbard c.

    Lumberjack Paul Bunyan is known in American folklore for being large. So it’s appropriate that this RTC Hall of Fame trail bears his name. Spanning 112 miles (120 when complete), it is one of the longest continuously paved trails in the U.S.

     

     

    3. Heartland State Trail

    Cass and Hubbard counties

    When established in 1974, the 49-mile Heartland State Trail made history as one of the nation's first rail-trail projects. And as you would expect in a land of lakes, the trail runs past a variety of water bodies—many of which are directly accessible from the pathway.

     

     

    4. Willard Munger State Trail

    See TrailLink.com for county segments.

    A collection of three multi-use trail segments spanning about 160 miles, this trail highlights the rich backdrops and history of East Central Minnesota, following the route of a railroad that saved many lives during the notorious Hinckley and Cloquet fires in the 19th century.

     

     

    5. Lake Wobegon State Trail

    Stearns and Todd counties

    This 62-mile pathway claims its name from the fictional town made famous by Garrison Keillor’s radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion.” But the quaint cafés, cultural attractions and vistas are the real deal. Plus—you may spot a Showy Lady’s Slipper. 

     

     

    6. Central Lakes State Trail

    Douglas, Grant and Otter Tail counties

    The 55-mile Central Lakes State Trail boasts a seamless connection from the Lake Wobegon Trail as well as a 14-foot width across its entire length. And true to its name, lakes are a central attraction; many types of waterfowl use them during their migrations.

     

     

    7. Mesabi Trail

    Itasca and St. Louis counties

    When complete, this currently 115-mile trail running through the Iron Range region will span 132 miles. The trail is an ode to the region's mining past/present as it winds past manmade mine-pit lakes, old iron-ore pits and functioning iron-ore mines. 

     

     

    8. Luce Line State Trail

    Carver, Hennepin, McLeod and Meeker counties

    Like a “jaunt down a country road,” this 63-mile trail stretches through preserved countryside in urban and rural Minnesota. In the east, one will find sugar maples and basswoods; in the west, the remnants of tall-grass prairie. Wildlife abounds. 

     

     

    9. Gitchi-Gami State Trail

    Cook and Lake counties

    Currently a 29-mile multi-use trail, the Gitchi-Gami State Trail will eventually span 88 miles on Lake Superior’s north shore. The trail is an active transportation amenity, providing a safe, nonmotorized alternative to State Route 61. Highlights: Great parks and views.

     

     

    10. Cannon Valley Trail

    Goodhue County

    The 19.7-mile Cannon Valley Trail inhabits the corridor of the former Chicago Great Western Railway, gradually descending 115 feet in elevation from Cannon Falls to Red Wing. Users can enjoy the spectacular beauty of the area's overhanging cliffs and wetlands.

     

     

     

    Photo 1 courtesy of Root River Trail Towns; Photos 3, 8 and 9 courtesy of TrailLink.com; Photo 4 courtesy of Scott Schumacher via Flickr; Photo 5 courtesy of How to Build & Repair via Flickr; Photo 6 courtesy of MN DNR; Photo 7 courtesy of Sheldon Schwartz via Flickr; Photo 10 courtesy of Cannon Valley Trail.

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    Amy Kapp is RTC's content strategy manager and Editor-in-Chief of Rails to Trails Magazine. Kapp frequently publishes articles and blog posts about topics related to parks and trails, the outdoors and community development.

  • Minneapolis’ Nonmotorized Pilot Program: Some Reflections

    Recently, I concluded my role as director of Bike Walk Twin Cities (BWTC) with Transit for Livable Communities, the nonprofit identified by Congress as one of four local sites across the country to administer the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program. The program enabled the Minneapolis area to make $28 million worth of investments in bicycling and walking transportation. 

    There are more than 40 projects completed, with 10 capital projects yet to open this year; planning and program activity is nearly concluded. The Minneapolis area already had a world-class system of trails; therefore, BWTC investments completed a few trail extensions but really focused more on street connectivity—linking neighborhoods to employment and commercial centers, and daily destinations. 

    Few bicyclists likely understand whether improvements have been funded by federal gas tax, state transportation taxes or local property tax. I, however, have a keen appreciation of the city, county, state and federal roles in the implementation of these projects and the valued commitment to improve public right-of-way for all road users. 

    Join me on a "ride" past some pilot highlights:

    The intersection of bikeways on Riverside and 20th avenues in South Minneapolis is the juncture of the University of Minnesota and the vibrant Seward neighborhood. With the advantage of community clamor, a four-to-three-lane road diet of Riverside was tested, allowing the addition of temporary bike lanes. A reconstructed street now includes permanent bike lanes. BWTC measured a 63 percent increase in bicycle traffic from 2007 to 2013. 

    This sign on the 5th Street Bicycle Boulevard in Northeast Minneapolis leads to an alley—a brilliant work-around in an area hemmed by busy streets and industrial properties. At a public meeting in 2010 at Firefighters’ Hall, local residents commented to support or protest the project. One impassioned debate concerned the flow of motor vehicle traffic at a crossing of a busy arterial. 

    The result: the city’s first bicycle signal! I love how the signal confirms my status as traffic—a demonstration that evades bicyclists at most traffic lights where only a car can trip the cycle.  

    2014 progress on the EcoVillage in North Minneapolis is the scene of my most treasured pilot memory. In 2010, BWTC participated in the Habitat for Humanity annual Jimmy/Rosalynn Carter Work Project. “You need bicycle power to help haul materials around the work sites,” I urged. We worked with partners to fill a week’s roster with bicycles/trailers and volunteers. Doubtful logistics staff were ultimately convinced that bikes could deliver!

    Project implementation this year will open a tunnel under a freeway and convert these steps into a ramp, creating a continuous 11-mile bikeway from a northern suburb of Saint Paul to North Minneapolis. This will link many neighborhoods, the Saint Paul and Minneapolis campuses of the University of Minnesota, and downtown Minneapolis. 

    The pilot verdict: much progress. A vision for the future challenges us to build momentum. Every neighborhood has a community bike/walk center. Dedicated funding enables communities to plan and implement a full network rather than piecemeal projects. Committed activists hold agencies accountable for complete streets. Elected officials champion socially just public investments. Land use creates more compact communities. 

    Whenever I ride or walk through neighborhoods with new projects, what I experience most is a sense of place, a sense that these routes are part of a deepening connection to my community. If bicycling and walking investments help to instill ownership and pride in how a city serves all residents, the pilot has left its greatest mark. 

    Not too long ago, I attended a fundraiser for SPOKES Bike Walk Connect, a community center in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis that is home to many residents of the city’s large East African population. BWTC funding launched this center as well as the Community Partners Bike Library, making bicycling more accessible as affordable, healthy transportation. The beaming smiles of adults learning to ride a bike…? My pure inspiration. 

    Top photo courtesy of Bike Walk Twin Cities

    Story photos by Joan Pasiuk

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    Joan Pasiuk is the former director of Bike Walk Twin Cities at Transit for Livable Communities. She is a lifelong utilitarian and recreational bicyclist and has worked in program development in the nonprofit, industry and higher-education sectors.

  • Heart of Minneapolis: The Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway

    At the heart of Minneapolis’ world-class trail system is the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway, a series of seven segments of interconnected parks and parkways that loop around the city, acting as a key connector to the entire network of city parks and trails, and more than 300 miles of regional trails. The 7 segments are connected by 51 miles of paved pedestrian paths and (mostly) separate bike paths, as well as 55 miles of driving parkways that give the Grand Rounds its status as a national scenic byway. 

    In the late 1800s, the pressures of dramatic growth in population led Minneapolis visionaries to think carefully about city planning. In 1883, the independent Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board was created. Prominent landscape architect Horace Cleveland created a blueprint for a park system that the park board followed for many decades and that eventually became the Grand Rounds. Cleveland understood the need for a growing population—and especially the poor and underserved—to have access to public recreation, and the park board acquired the park space that has provided public access ever since.

    From the Grand Rounds, travelers can access the city’s numerous parks and trails. Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Superintendent Jayne Miller says that the early vision of the Grand Rounds “demonstrates how vital parks are and how vital planning is.” It is this connectivity that allows residents to use the Grand Rounds trails not just for recreation but for daily travel. The Grand Rounds trails are cleared by six o’clock every morning in the winter, says Miller, because many commuters depend on them to walk and bike to work!

    The Grand Rounds has developed and expanded over the years, most recently in the 1980s as the park board began a project to reclaim the declining, formerly industrialized central riverfront along the Mississippi River. The investment to create trails, parks and amenities for the public all along the riverfront cost $300 million in some federal, but mostly state and local, funding. This spurred more than $1.9 billion in private development along the greenway—a remarkable return on investment that demonstrates the value of investing in trails and public parks. The central riverfront continues to be a popular tourist destination, providing a generous source of tourism revenue.

    In keeping with the objective to provide public access to all, the park board’s current RiverFirst Initiative is a project to reclaim the upper riverfront of the Mississippi, north of the revitalized central riverfront. Among their long-term plans for wetland, habitat and greenway restoration is an extension of Farview Park in north Minneapolis. Bisected by I-94 and cut off from the riverfront, Farview Park resides in one of Minneapolis’ most economically challenged areas. Plans to extend the park include a one-mile pedestrian land bridge to provide residents access to the riverfront via the 26th Avenue North Greenway and fishing pier. 

    The RiverFirst Initiative again plans to use a combination of federal, state and local dollars to expand access to public space. A critical transportation bill is pending in the state legislature that, if passed, would provide funding for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure considered important for transportation needs. With the Grand Rounds system already used daily for commuting, it is hard to imagine that the project would not qualify.

    The RiverFirst Initiative is in its initial stages, and the Farview Park extension is a long-term objective, but its completion is only a matter of time. With the same determination as the city’s original planners to provide public access to trails and the outdoors, there is no doubt that residents and visitors will one day enjoy even more trails and riverfront parks along Minneapolis’ Grand Rounds Scenic Byway. 

    Top and bottom photos courtesy of Meet Minneapolis via Flickr

    Right photo courtesy of A Brand New Minneapolis via Flickr

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    Leeann Sinpatanasakul recently joined RTC as advocacy coordinator for the public policy team. She focuses on generating grassroots support in America for state and federal trail funding.

  • Duluth, Minn., Is Striving to Become North America's "Premiere Trail City"

    There is a hidden gem nestled in the North Shore of Lake Superior, a city with a bold trail-system vision and a passionate citizenry. Duluth, Minn., is striving to create a community where people want to live, work and play, and much of that is coming from their focus on active transportation. 

    Mayor Don Ness, Duluth’s champion for trails, issued a challenge to the Duluth Trail Advisory Group—that “Duluth should be the premier trail city in North America”—and he is taking action to make that vision a reality. In 2011, the final draft of the Trails and Bikeways Master Plan was published, creating a blueprint for the future as the city moves forward. 

    Even with a clear community vision and local government on board, Duluth still must address some major challenges. An 800-foot ridge rises from the lakefront, dissuading many would-be bikers and walkers. Lisa Luokkala, director of the Healthy Duluth Area Coalition, says that Duluth’s transit system plays a major role in addressing this “vertical challenge.”

    In Duluth’s business community, there is a diversity of players at the table who have differing ideas of what a robust transportation system looks like. Reconciling those differences is a challenge, but it is one that Duluth is not stepping down from. Duluth also faces the question of how to finance and organize ongoing maintenance of existing trails, a discussion that is happening in communities across the country.

    According to Luokkala, there is a ripple effect influencing trends in Duluth. “Young people are moving from larger metropolitan areas like Minneapolis and Chicago, where biking and walking infrastructure is becoming an expected norm,” says Luokkala. “This is pressuring mid-sized governments to consider and support active transportation amenities to attract new residents.” 

    And with the mayor’s goal of growing the city to 90,000 residents by 2020, decision makers are taking note. By instituting a Complete Streets policy, the City of Duluth requires transportation planners and engineers to consider all users—bicyclists, pedestrians and public transit riders—when designing, planning and renovating the streetscape. 

    Last year, Healthy Duluth hosted a hugely successful Active Transportation Week, which included Safe Routes to School seminars, tree planting along the trails, an Active Transportation and Business Entrepreneurship workshop, and a luncheon with James Oberstar, who, while in Congress, was a leader for the bicycle and pedestrian movement and continues to advocate broadly for active transportation. The outpouring of local support inspired organizers to extend the event into a month-long series this year, and by renaming the event Bus.Bike.Walk Month, Healthy Duluth highlights the importance of a comprehensive, multimodal transportation system. 

    And Mayor Ness wouldn’t miss it; he is leading the 3rd Annual Mayor’s Bike Ride, this time going west, heading into the historically blue collar regions of the city where much new trail development is occurring. 

    It has taken tremendous effort by many community members, local leaders and decision makers on the national level to bring Duluth’s trail system this far—and the work continues. One of the most exciting developments is a trail that would span the city, connecting universities and local schools and linking the Willard-Munger State Trail to the Lakewalk. Some segments of this “cross-city trail” are currently under construction, with an estimated 2017 completion date for the important connector.

    Growing demand and shifting trends are pushing local government forward, and input from the community is integrated into the decision-making process to ensure that the city continues to prioritize active transportation. It won’t come easy, but Duluth continues to build a framework to become North America’s “premiere trail city.”

    Top and right photos - Annual Mayor's Ride in Duluth; Bottom left photo - Congressman James Oberstar loads his bike after the ride.

    All photos by Bryan French

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    Katie Harris is RTC’s transportation policy intern. She joined our team this spring in the national office.

  • It’s All About Connections: A Vision for the Dakota Rail Regional Trail

    As an important transportation bill continues to move through Minnesota’s state legislature, RTC continues its focus on trail projects with the potential to greatly impact communities across the North Star State.

    Smooth, paved bicycle paths? Check. Lakeside vistas and activities? Check. Scenic rural trails? Check. Connections to nearby trails? Well…not just yet. 

    Welcome to the Dakota Rail Regional Trail, a pathway currently less than 30 minutes west of the Twin Cities by car. As you may have guessed from the name, the trail was a railroad corridor owned by several companies over the years, including the Dakota Rail. Before its closure in 2001, the railroad ran through three counties from Wayzata, Minn., to Hutchinson, Minn., in McLeod County. 

    The county would like to add 22 miles to the existing trail—and another check mark on its list of benefits for communities and trail users—but for now, the 25-mile paved trail only runs through two counties, snaking its way around Lake Minnetonka and Lake Waconia to end at the edge of Carver County. 

    Unfortunately, the trail abruptly ends near the county line, and because of unsafe bridge conditions over the creek, it is impossible to reach the City of Lester Prairie in McLeod County without doubling back to the nearest road.

    For years, Lester Prairie and the McLeod County Parks Department have struggled to extend the trail just two miles into town. Like many trail projects, their main challenge has been funding, but Lester Prairie isn’t deterred. Never one to give up, Chris Schultz, a member of the town’s Parks Board, is planning to submit a Minnesota Legacy Grant application—their fourth—this fall. He is hopeful that, this time, their application will be successful.

    In the short term, Schultz says that extending the trail to Lester Prairie will bring visitors to the small city, and the economic revenue that comes with visitors would benefit the local population of just less than 1,700 people. More importantly, he believes the trail connection will raise the quality of life and contribute to the vitality of the community, adding an intrinsic value worth more than any dollar amount. 

    Thinking long term, Schultz and the parks department envision much more for the Dakota Rail Regional Trail than just the small extension into Lester Prairie. The county would like to extend the trail west to the city of Hutchinson. For them, the big picture is all about connections. The 77-mile Luce Line State Trail runs north and parallel to the Dakota Rail Regional Trail, and an extension of the Luce Line to Hutchinson is already in the works. Linking the Dakota and Luce Line trails in Hutchinson would create the “longest contiguous trail section that is closest to a major metropolitan area in the Midwest,” according to Schultz. 

    The goal is not to simply pave another mile of trail for the sake of paving another mile of trail, but to make strategic connections and to build a network of trails that benefits users.

    The vision is for residents in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area to be able to start in Wayzata, ride the trail all the way out to Hutchinson on the Dakota Rail Regional Trail and come back on the Luce Line Trail as a weekend trip. Schultz hopes trail users will come out to enjoy the beautiful rural setting and the aesthetic value of country life. 

    Not bad for a trail only half an hour away.

    Top photo courtesy of Three Rivers Park District

    Right photo courtesy of MN Bike Trail Navigator

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    Leeann Sinpatanasakul recently joined RTC as advocacy coordinator for the public policy team. She focuses on generating grassroots support in America for state and federal trail funding.

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Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
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