The Emergence of Rail-Trails

It began in the mid-1960s, a quiet, gradual, primarily Midwest phenomenon barely noticed in the major metropolitan areas of America. The idea: to convert the abandoned or unused rail corridors being closed in increasingly large numbers—by the consolidating railroad industry—into public trails. 

Unlike the complex railroad system that was crumbling physically and financially, the concept was simple. It didn't require or even claim an inventor. Once the tracks came out, people just naturally started walking along the old grades, socializing, exploring, discovering old railroad relics and marveling at old industrial structures such as bridges, tunnels, abandoned mills, sidings, switches and whatever else they could find. In the snows of winter, the unconventional outdoor enthusiast skied or snowshoed on the corridor, but these were days before even running and all-terrain bicycles were common, so the predominant activity was walking. Of course, none of the corridors were paved or even graded—hey were simply abandoned stretches of land.

"Rails-to-Trails" is what people started calling it, and the name was catchy and descriptive enough to give the concept a tiny niche in the environmental movement that was gathering momentum.

RTC Opens Its Doors

By the early 1980s, the struggling railroad industry was abandoning 4,000 to 8,000 miles of lines each year. In 1983, a group of walking and biking enthusiasts, railroad history buffs, conservation and parks groups, and active-transportation activists began to meet for monthly brown-bag lunches in Washington, D.C., to mobilize efforts to preserve rail corridors for public use. The group realized the need for an organization that focused specifically on this work, and on Feb. 7, 1986, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy opened its doors.

Time Line

Less than three decades after RTC first came into being, rail-trails are making a significant mark in American communities, with more than 21,000 miles of rail-trails serving tens of millions of people each year. Here are some of the major events that have contributed to the creation and evolution of RTC and the rail-trail movement.

Oct. 2, 1968
National Trails System Act signed into law.

Jan. 1, 1976
The Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act (known as the 4R Act) included a little-noticed section setting up a Rails-to-Trails Grant Program. The 4R Act was to provide funding, information exchange and technical assistance in order to preserve the corridor and create trails.

Feb. 1, 1986
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy opens its doors.

Sept. 8, 1986
Governor John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) files the first railbanking application for the 185-mile Katy Trail, and in June 1987, Missouri legislature votes to convert the corridor.

Jan. 1, 1987
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy hits 400 members.

Oct. 4, 1988
President Ronald Reagan signs the National Trails System Improvement Act of 1988, securing the government's interest in federally granted rights-of-way.

Dec. 1, 1988
RTC membership jumps to 7,000.

Jan. 1, 1989
The 200th rail-trail opens with the Hart-Montague Bicycle Trail State Park (22.5 miles) in Michigan.

Feb. 21, 1990
U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upholds the constitutionality of railbanking.

March 1, 1991
RTC has 40,000 members at its five-year mark.

Nov. 3, 1991
Congress enacts ISTEA, the federal law that helps fund rail-trails.

Dec. 18, 1991
The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act is signed into law. The Transportation Enhancements (TE) program is introduced in the bill.

Jan. 1, 1993
RTC reaches 547 open rail-trails, totaling 6,757 miles of rail-trail.

June 4, 1994
The 600th rail-trail is opened with the Monon Trail in Indiana.

Jan. 1, 1995
RTC reaches 66,800 members.

March 7, 1996
RTC wins the President's Council on Sustainable Development award under President Clinton for "promoting a community enhancing program that is both economically sound and environmentally friendly.”

June 1, 1996
RTC reaches 800 rail-trails and 5,000 open rail-trail miles.

Sept. 1, 1997
RTC website is launched. The 900th rail-trail opens with the Raccoon River Trail in Iowa.

June 9, 1998
TEA-21, the Federal law that helps fund rail-trails, is signed into law.

June 9, 1998
ISTEA is reauthorized as the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). The bill increases funding for the Transportation Enhancements (TE) program.

Oct. 1, 1998
RTC reaches 1,000 rail-trails.

Oct. 5, 1998
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton launches the National Millennium Trails Program and a partnership with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Dec. 1, 2000
RTC reaches 83,851 members.

June 1, 2003
RTC reaches 12,000 miles of rail-trails with the 3.5-mile Middlesex Greenway in New Jersey.

Sept. 4, 2003
The U.S. House of Representatives votes (327 to 90) to restore funding to the Transportation Enhancements (TE) program.

Sept. 1, 2004
RTC opens its first of four regional offices in Pennsylvania, combining its Pennsylvania and Massachusetts offices, and adding Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont to the region.

July 29, 2005
After 12 extensions spanning two years, the new federal surface transportation legislation was passed to reauthorize TEA-21. The new bill is titled SAFETEA-LU (Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users).

Aug. 10, 2005
SAFETEA-LU is signed into law.

Oct. 1, 2005
RTC opens its second regional office in Ohio, adding Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin to its region.

Jan. 1, 2006
RTC opens its third regional office in California, adding Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington to the region.

June 2007
RTC worked diligently with Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and other supporters to pass legislation protecting TE from disproportionate rescission cuts. As a result, the U.S. Department of Transportation is legally required to limit the amount each state can cut from its TE program.

July 1, 2007
RTC launches the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. Twenty-five exemplary rail-trails will be named to the Hall of Fame over the course of the next five years.

Aug. 8, 2007
Nearly 300 attendees from 40 states and three countries attend RTC's national TrailLink conference in Portland, Ore., where RTC kicks off its "2010 Campaign for Active Transportation."

Oct. 20, 2008
RTC presents its groundbreaking Active Transportation for America report to Congress. The report quantifies—for the first time—the national benefits of bicycling and walking.

May 2009
RTC launches the Urban Pathways Initiative, a three-year program aimed at encouraging healthy opportunities for physical activity in urban communities.

Feb. 1, 2011
RTC marks its 25th anniversary and reaches nearly 20,000 miles of rail-trails.

January 2012
RTC releases its Active Transportation Beyond Urban Centers report, which puts forth evidence that walking and biking is valued not just in metropolitan areas, but in small towns and rural areas as well.

February 2012
RTC takes a lead role in the Circuit Coalition to help complete a 750-mile regional trail system, creating crucial links in the Greater Philadelphia region to neighborhoods, business districts and natural areas.

March 2012
RTC launches the first annual Opening Day for Trails.

June 29, 2012
MAP-21, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, is signed into law, reducing federal investment in active transportation and consolidating three core programs from SAFETEA-LU, Transportation Enhancements (TE), Safe Routes to School (SRTS) and the Recreational Trail Program (RTC) under a new Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP). RTC and its supporters continue to mobilize.

September 2013
RTC publishes America’s Rails-with-Trails, the most comprehensive report on the topic in more than a decade, based on 20 years of data collection and study.

Feb. 11, 2013
RTC and the Partnership for Active Transportation develop the federal policy platform, Safe Routes to Everywhere, calling on the federal government to increase its investment dedicated to active transportation and integrate health concerns into transportation decisions and policy.

January 2014
RTC takes a leadership role in the Power of 32+, a regional trail project that will eventually connect 52 counties in Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York, becoming the single largest destination trail network in the country.

June 2014
RTC launches T-MAP, the nation’s first nationwide survey of urban trail use, to create a new set of models for urban trail planning and development in America.

July 2014
The results of the federally funded Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program are announced, revealing that investments in four communities were responsible for averting 85.1 million vehicle miles traveled between 2009 and 2013.

August 2014
RTC reaches more than 160,000 members and supporters and more than 21,000 miles of rail-trails, used by tens of millions of Americans every year.

September 2014
RTC helps lead a successful statewide campaign in Missouri to have the abandoned 145-mile Rock Island Line railbanked for future trail development.