Sharing a trail corridor with a utility is not only an efficient use of space, but it also has the potential to defray the costs associated with trail development, among many other advantages. Many types of utilities, including water, sewer, natural gas, electric and fiber optic, can have their lines buried or encased near or beneath a trail, while telecommunications, cable and electric utilities can run above a corridor using air rights. Of course, utility and recreational trail co-use is not without its complications, specifically when faced with the unique needs of utility companies and the potential concerns of adjacent landowners and trail users. However, with properly negotiated maintenance and land agreements, utilities can have a minimal effect—and even offer a host of benefits—on the trail, its neighbors and its users.
Types of Trail and Utility Co-Use
Preexisting Utility Easement with Railroad
It is not uncommon for utility companies to negotiate easements with railroads while the line is still active—well before rail-trail plans are developed. Utility companies prefer rail corridors for the transport or transmission of their utility for the same reason they prefer rail-trails: the uninterrupted corridors are the ideal conduit for linear energy and telecommunications infrastructure. When rail service ceases, the utility remains, but the original easement may be transferred to the organization that acquires the corridor for trail use through railbanking or another method. Sometimes trail development is even an explicit allowable use in the existing easement.
In Denton, Texas, the local water provider and cable company had their utilities installed beneath a corridor while it was still owned by the railroad. When the corridor was railbanked, the companies transferred the licensing of the space to the trail management agency. The corridor is now open to the public as the Denton Branch Rail Trail, and most trail users are probably unaware of the successful utility co-use below their feet.
Rail Corridor Sold to Utility Company
Because of the attractiveness of long railroad lines to utility companies, these companies will sometimes purchase entire rail corridors in a single transaction to prevent the piecemeal sale of the property. Utility companies, which are often natural monopolies, generally have the resources to make sound financial offers to the abandoning railroad. However, this usually shouldn’t preclude a trail from sharing the space. If the utility only requires subsurface or air rights, or can be contained in an above-ground encasement with room for an adjacent trail, the utility company, trail managing agency and community can potentially benefit from a partnership or easement.
Occasionally, beneficent utility companies will donate the ground space to a trail management organization instead of charging a fee. In the case of the St. Ignace to Trout Lake Trail, Michigan Bell was willing to work with trail supporters at the state and local level when the railroad would not. The Soo Line denied the idea of railbanking their line when approached and instead sold the 26-mile corridor in a single transaction to the telephone company. Michigan Bell then delayed laying their fiber optic cables in order to organize the transfer of their property to the Forest Service. For allowing Michigan Bell’s perpetual easement, the Forest Service paid no costs to acquire the corridor.
Non-Rail-Trails in Utility Corridors
Neglected, unused space along a utility corridor developed separately from a rail line may also become a beautiful trail or functional cut-through with the proper negotiations. Frequently, this is done with pipelines or overhead electric corridors. Consider the popular Power Trail in Fort Collins, Colo., which shares its four-mile paved route with overhead power lines. The Albertson Parkway in San Jose, Calif., which was once an unsightly utility corridor with a history of attracting crime, was developed into a winding bike path with pleasant landscaping through the negotiation of an easement with PG&E. The trail now sees frequent use from hikers, bikers and dog walkers. Similarly, the Tolt Pipeline Trail, located on the edge of the Puget Sound region of Washington, was developed on top of one of Seattle’s primary water pipelines and now attracts visits from equestrian users and mountain bikers.
When a company pursues the installation of their utility along an existing trail, the corridor’s value must first be determined. As is the case with valuing rail corridors for sale, this is no easy task. The value of a corridor can vary based on its length, width, surface material, landscaping, amenities and traffic, in addition to the utility’s specific needs. How often will utility maintenance or construction likely lead to trail damage or closings? All these factors must be considered by the trail management organization and the utility.
In general, bringing in a real estate appraiser who has experience with utility right-of-ways to get an estimate is recommended. Appraisers should be equipped with accurate maps of the corridor showing, at a minimum, all boundaries and anywhere the trail crosses a road, railroad track or another trail. The utility company will most likely send their own appraiser to value the corridor, so it is advantageous to have a second opinion to counter that assessed value.
The next step is to form the easement or other type of agreement. This may be time consuming, as every corridor is different, and parties to the negotiations may substantially disagree. Furthermore, as these are legal agreements, lawyers should always be involved. Often, an existing utility right-of-way was itself established through easements with adjacent property owners. In these cases, their permission will most likely also be required.
Any compensation that a trail management group or municipality receives for an easement or license is to be used only in the ways outlined in the memorandum of understanding. For the Washington & Old Dominion Trail, the agreed-upon value ranges from $2 to $4 per foot per year for the various licenses along the corridor. Possible uses for the compensation include, but are not limited to, trail repair, maintenance, employee salaries, legal costs and future trail development.
The ultimate reward to a trail-managing agency or organization for successfully negotiating with a utility company is often worth the trouble. In Pennsylvania, the York County Department of Parks & Recreation was paid the one-time lump sum of $500,000 for their easement with MCI to build the Heritage Rail Trail County Park. Now, the department is reimbursed on a yearly basis by the other utilities sharing the corridor, amounting to a few thousand dollars a year. As per their utility crossing fee schedule, all labor and material used in the construction, reconstruction and repair of the crossings; the hiring of employees to maintain the county's various interests in the trail and trail traffic; and the cost of professional services related to the easement are paid for by the utility companies.
As described above, earning revenue through the collection of annual fees is one of the main benefits of a partnership between a trail-owning agency and a utility company. On the W & OD Trail in suburban Virginia outside Washington, D.C., AT&T pays $250,000 a year ($7,000 per trail mile) for their telecommunications easement. In this case, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority owns the corridor but allows the utility full access on the condition of compensation. Since third party access means the possibility of trail damages or closings when the utility company comes in for installation or maintenance, the yearly payment is used for reimbursement. It can also fund future trail development and general upkeep.
One other potential benefit is the donation of unused ground space by a utility company to a trail management organization, completely cutting the normal costs associated with trail acquisition for the community. In other cases, the utility will instead provide gift-in-kind services or materials as compensation for their access. This can include trail surfacing, general repair work or overall maintenance. Furthermore, having a utility nearby could mean providing services to trail users that were previously unavailable, such as restrooms along the trail or lighting in tunnels.
For Utility Companies
Because utility companies regularly seek out long, linear corridors as sites for their services, they usually do not take much convincing to see the benefits of trail and utility co-use. However, there are other potential benefits for the utility company. Development of a trail has the potential to make a utility space more functional and visually attractive, making neighbors less likely to oppose current or future utility plans. Supporting and being close to public space like a trail also establishes the company and its workers as a part of the community. By working with landowners and trail supporters at the local level, a utility company can improve its public relations and, in turn, business.
A trail also can provide uninterrupted access to a utility. Utility personnel, who might be able to travel along the trail to their work sites, could more easily reach lines and fixtures. Depending on the type of surface used for the trail, it could even allow access for maintenance-related vehicles. Partnering with a trail management agency generally also means communicating directly with a single partner instead of hundreds of property owners along the line. Therefore, repairs and adjustments can be made more quickly without the need to organize multiple meetings.
Despite all these benefits, proposed utility co-use can be met with opposition from neighbors and trail users for many reasons. Most commonly, there are complaints of compromised visual integrity of the trail. If the easement is made for a subsurface utility like water, buried electric or sewer, this will not be a problem. Such lines can be buried either directly under or adjacent to the trail, making all but maintenance invisible. In some cases, overhead utilities can actually improve the views of a trail; for example, power lines open the canopy, displaying vistas that were previously masked. If the utility company is not willing to negotiate to protect views from the trail, federally funded projects may be able to gain viewshed protection under statutes like section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act or section 102 of the National Environmental Policy Act.
Land use by the utility company can also become a substantial issue, especially if the utility company owns the corridor. Construction activity or maintenance to the property could mean trail damage or the closure of the trail at unpredictable times. Some utility companies may use pesticides or other materials harmful to the environment in order to improve access to their equipment. Such problems can be alleviated by open communication and by requests for specific permits or licensing in the easement or land agreement. As previously mentioned, financial compensation is also an option.
The electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) surrounding overhead power lines can also raise concerns in the community. EMFs are the invisible areas of energy associated with the use of electric power. As proximity to power lines increases, the strength of the EMFs likewise increases. Fortunately, the association between field strength and an increased risk for adverse health effects is weak at best, and transiently being near power lines while using a trail should not be cause for concern.
Electric utility companies may require additional precautions to preserve public safety when faced with the request for construction of a trail on their land. Dangerous electrical equipment can be blocked off from trail users with anti-climbing poles, and a designated buffer space between the trail and transmission towers might be mandated. Signage describing the risks of being in proximity to high-voltage lines could also be a requirement. For the City of San Jose's trail system, agreements between the city and utility company outline mutual safety objectives for trail projects. All these safety precautions are paid for by the utility company, which is also liable for any damages or injuries to the trail and its users. In general, proper signage, fencing and buffer zones in utility corridors with above-ground easements should make trails perfectly safe.