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February 23, 2000
At the turn of the century, in the midst of becoming the greatest nation in history through an abundance of technological and industrial breakthroughs, the United States was home to the world's most extensive network of railroads. Only the dawn of the automobile age, early 20th Century America was woven together by 300,000 miles (486,000 km) of steel rail, literally almost every community in the country touched by the path of the great Iron Horse.

Now, with over 2000 miles (3200 km) of railroad being abandoned every year, the original network of rail lines has been cut in half. What becomes of all the miles of public land that once served as transportation routes? As most of us know a great portion of it has been leveled off and incorporated into the surrounding property or merely left to grow over with weeds and slide into disrepair. In an increasing number of circumstances, however, turning the railways and corridors into public recreation facilities has become a viable option with some very forward-thinking possibilities.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy was founded in 1986 as an organization to provide a national, organized voice for the creation of rail-trails, a phenomenon which had been gaining momentum throughout the country.

The concept of preserving the pre-existing rail routes and converting them into multi-use public recreation facilities began in the Midwest, where I grew up and where railroad abandonment has been widespread since the early 1960s. As the rails and ties were removed and huge sections of the railbed were swallowed up by the surrounding farmland people began to use the remaining sections for walking, bicycling, and ATV use, often times discovering the relics left behind such as tunnels, train stations, and bridges. Initially most of the transformation was informal and where direct efforts were made to transform the railbeds to trails they were met with failure as vast sections of track were sold to the highest bidder, often times broken into many pieces.

In 1983 Congress enacted an important amendment to the National Trails System Act which allowed rail lines on the verge of abandonment to be "railbanked," which meant that they could be set aside for future rail use but be used as public trails for the interim. The most valuable asset of railbanking is that the lines, while not in use, are not officially abandoned and thus cannot be broken up or sold off to private buyers. Railbanking was a huge swing of the pendulum in the favor of rail trails, but there were still a litany of obstacles to be overcome in the conversion process. The window for Railbanking is only 180 days, after which the line can be abandoned and broken up at the rail company's discretion. This window of action, coupled with a widespread lack of information prompted many independent trail groups to band together in efforts of forming an efficient organization capable of acting promptly and effectively within the Railbanking guidelines. That organization was the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the 13 year old non-profit, member funded organization which as overseen a dramatic increase in rail-trails.

In 1986, at the time of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's inception, there were only 75 known rail-trails and only 90 planned projects. By the end of 1998 that number had grown to over 1000 completed rail-trails of various lengths, with an additional 1200 projects in the works. To date, more than 10,000 miles (16,200 km) of rail-trails have been completed with converted railroad lines in 49 states and the District of Columbia. Hawaii, the only state without a rail-trail, has recently begun work on a five mile trail of its own. It isn't surprising that outdoor recreation-minded states like California, Colorado and Washington have the most ambitious plans for rail-trails, but it's states like Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, each with over 1100 miles (1780 km) of completed trails, that show the possibilities of rails-to-trails conversions. These trails, projected to combine into a nation wide network of more than 18,000 miles (29,100 km) of greenways, are open all year around for a host of activities including hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.

The slow start of rail-trails can be attributed to a number of factors, most of which were public misconceptions about railbanking. The most widespread misconception was that railbanking was somehow taking land away from the public for special interest uses such as hiking and cycling. The fact is that, through railbanking, rail-trails are actually preserving rail lines for future use; lines which would have otherwise disappeared into private holdings. A prime example of railbanking's benefits is one that I am personally familiar with - Saint Louis' Metrolink transit system. 14 miles of about-to-be-abandoned rail line, including the Eades Bridge (which is the oldest link across the Mississippi River), were set aside through railbanking and are now in use for public transit. This very example serves to dispel two other misconceptions of rail-trails and railbanking; that railbanking is only effective in rural settings, and that railbanking is simply guise for creating trails which never revert to public transportation uses.

Indeed, Saint Louis' Metrolink, Dallas' DART, and Washington DC's Capital Crescent are all proof that the nation is returning to the environ -mentally and efficient transportation of rail cars. In the instances where urban railbanked lines have not been reverted to rail use they serve as greenways through bleak concrete landscapes, providing much needed recreation space as well as pragmatic transportation corridors.

Another common misconception and misguided criticism of railbanking is that they are not successful, which is a far cry from reality. At the end of 1998 221 corridors had been railbanked resulting in 110 trails in 26 states which cross 3,126 miles (5064 km)., with an additional 61 railbanked areas under developmental considerations. If you do the math, that turns out to be only 50 failed railbankings, most of which were due to overbearing litigation as opposed to public opposition.

Initially the critics of rail-trails were quick to address trails which had not been railbanked, which were created through outright abandonment and reclamation but, again, the facts lean heavily in favor of rail-trails. Surveys into the demographics of trail users quickly dispelled the notion of special-interest groups and the amount of traffic made it clear that rail-trails were not simply a good idea but rather a widely used public service. In 1999 alone the 1000 various trails across the United States will be used by the public more than 100 million times!

What about the impact on the community? Won't there be hundreds of crazed, purple -haired and pierced mountain bikers tearing up the trails and littering, or horseback riders leaving mounds of manure along the trail to be cleaned up at the public's expense? Well, yes. Trail maintenance does cost money, but the revenue the trails bring in to local communities, on average, more than negates any investment. Bikers, hikers, riders, and skiers need food, lodging, fuel, special equipment, and services as a result of using the trail which provides a miniature boom to the local economy. The Rails-to-Trails website gives a few examples, another of which I am personally familiar with:

"Before the Katy Trail went through his back yard in Defiance, Missouri, woodworker Karl Koenig barely got by on a few commissions. Since the trail opened, Koenig's Carpenter Love Shop has been deluged with surprised and appreciative browsers and buyers. Koenig today has a mailing list of over 100,000 people."

The benefits of the trail are sometimes obvious and sometimes not:

"It took 17 years to clear the bureaucratic hurdles and build the Minuteman Trail near Boston, but the wait may have been worth it for The Bike Shop. It served an amazing 1800 people on a single beautiful Saturday in 1994. The Minuteman has also been good for Steve's Ice Cream Shop in Arlington, which serves about 200 more people a week, and the Gap clothing store in Lexington, which claims a 30% business increase because of the trail."

An additional, often unseen benefit of rail-trails is the revenue they create for the entire state, not just the local community, through sales tax from directly trail related transactions. A study of Maryland's North Central Rail-Trail resulted in some alarming figures: the management and maintenance of the trail cost the public $191,893 but the tax income related to the trail was a whopping $303,750.

So, you might be wondering, How does a rail-trail come about? Well, it isn't such an easy process. First, all efforts to continue rail service have to be exhausted, which in many areas of the country, particularly the Midwest, isn't a problem. After service on the lines is discontinued, rail-trails can step in and become a silver lining in the crumbling network of railways, providing an immediate use for railbeds which took millions of dollars to construct and will likely be needed in the future when environmentally sound means of transportation become more pressing.

The actual abandonment can be somewhat complicated in itself. Obviously service has to be discontinued, but the Surface Transportation Board must officially approve the abandonment and the pay schedules must be cancelled. Just because the tracks are still there doesn't mean a railway hasn't been officially abandoned, but, conversely, an empty rail bed might not be officially abandoned. This poses another problem, which is the information. Thanks to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy it is now much easier to find out which lines are actually abandoned, but that was not always the case.

Once a trail is abandoned, the ownership of the property is often times reverted to the original owners, from whom many railroad companies leased instead of buying. Once this happens it is extremely difficult to reassemble the pieces from what could be thousands of individual owners. Through the process of railbanking you can prevent the line from becoming officially abandoned, thus keeping it in tact.

If the trail does become abandoned it is imperative to act quickly while the Public Use Condition is still in effect. The PUC gives public agencies wishing to set up trails the exclusive right to negotiate ownership terms with the railroad company for 180 days. During this time all bridges, tunnels and crossings must also remain intact.

Although public agencies generally construct the trails, they are not funded through a grant program of taxpayers' money as is commonly believed. Instead, the Transportation Enhancements Act, under which rail-trails are constructed, operates as a reimbursement program in which a minimum of 20% of the project's total cost be provided by the trail project sponsor. Only the remaining 80% is paid from the Federal Highway Trust fund, an amount which, at any rate, pails in comparison to the cost of many light-use highways.

All things considered, rail-trails are beneficial to a wide range of people, both trail users and non-users. In an age when the monumental projects of the past are falling to ruins the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is not only finding a use for them today, but ensuring they are available for wider applications in the future.

SEE ALSO: www.railtrails.org
SEE ALSO: www.traillink.com

--
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.

See other articles by Eric J Herboth.

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