RTC’s initial vision, experience and expertise put us in the forefront of the national effort to preserve rail corridors for public use. Over time, we have expanded our work to include creating connections between these rail-trails and other multi-use trails and open spaces. In addition, our policy work has shifted into more of a defensive position as federal funding for trails increasingly comes under attack.

In 1986, with only 250 miles of rail-trails in existence, there was little established knowledge of the rail-trail conversion process. If RTC was not directly involved, then a trail might not be built. As a result, our policy work initially focused on the implementation of the “railbanking” act, with RTC operating as a “conservancy” to railbank and acquiring inactive corridors. We also began providing technical assistance to local rail-trail pioneers seeking to navigate the new rail-trail conversion process. This assistance has expanded over the years to include an array of technical support and guidance in building and maintaining trails.

Because the primary benefits of rail-trails were considered initially to be corridor preservation, recreation and protection of open space, trails often were built with limited public funds dedicated to parks and recreation. This focus shifted significantly with the passage of the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, or ISTEA, which was championed by RTC. For the first time, federal surface transportation funds were available for the development of trails for walking and biking through the creation of the Transportation Enhancements and Recreational Trails Programs. With this new funding source, the benefits of rail-trails explicitly expanded to include transportation. 

Unfortunately, in the years since passage, RTC has had to fight to protect federal funding programs dedicated to building trails and has turned back repeated legislative and administrative efforts at the state and national levels to undermine the program—a role we will continue to play in the years ahead.

In the 30 years since our founding, we’ve continued to look for new opportunities to have an impact. Increasingly, RTC has come to recognize the importance of large, interconnected, regional trail networks. These trails deliver high value to regional areas—which often cross state lines—as both active-transportation networks and destination-quality trails. And through our promotion of rails-with-trails—trails alongside active rail lines—we are helping advance the full potential of transportation systems.

Today, our role as defender, protector and supporter of trail development persists, even as the nature of that role continues to evolve.