Trails and Utilities
Sharing a trail corridor with a utility is not only an efficient use of space, 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. A spatial analysis by RTC of its trail database and publicly available electric transmission-lines data revealed that more than 400 multiuse trails across the country coexist within electric utility corridor rights-of-way, and approximately 17% of rail-trails in the United States are at least partially shared with this type of utility corridor.
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 on—and even offer a host of benefits for—the trail, its neighbors and its users.
Watch webinar: Trails and Utilities: A Powerful Partnership
Types of Utilities That Can Be Co-located With Trails
- Electric transmission lines: The Duke Energy Trail is a 4-mile trail in Pinellas County, Florida, with electric transmission lines running along the trail.
- Gas lines: The Columbia Trail is named after the natural gas pipeline that runs beneath it for 15 miles in rural northern New Jersey. After installing the pipeline, the company donated a trail easement to Hunterdon and Morris counties to develop and maintain the trail.
- Sewer lines: The Battle Creek Regional Park Trail in Ramsey County, Minnesota, is co-located with county-managed sewer lines.
- Water pipelines: The Pipeline Trail in Tacoma, Washington, is an aptly named trail that follows the right-of-way of a water pipeline. The 4.3-mile corridor is owned by Tacoma Water, a municipal water system.
- Among other utilities, the York Country Heritage Rail Trail has newly installed broadband cables running underneath its right-of-way.
- Running 26 miles through Mackinac County, Michigan, the St. Ignace to Trout Lake Trail is co-located with fiberoptic cable.
- Irrigation canals/districts: The BBWA Canal Trail in Yellowstone, Montana, follows the Billings Bench Water Association Canal, which is used for irrigation and storm drainage.
York Heritage Rail Trail
York County, Pennsylvania, and the York County Economic Alliance used $1.5 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to hire a company to install 16 miles fiberoptic cables underneath the Heritage Rail Trail County Park. This was the beginning of the implementation of a larger countywide plan to build a fiberoptic network where access to high-speed internet is lacking for businesses and residents.
An empty conduit had been installed on the corridor 30 years ago in case it was needed in the future. This foresight eased installation greatly, resulting in approximately $5 million in savings. The installation of fiberoptic cables underneath the trail specifically benefited trail users in that two popular trailheads now have Wi-Fi.
Internet access on the trail can be important in York, as some rural areas do not have cell service. Disruption to the trail was minimal; however, to prepare trail users for the installation process, managers posted signage to inform users about the broadband project and posted the information on the website. Additionally, the installation was scheduled in the fall and winter, when trail usage is lower. The project did not require trail closures but did require the use of a flagger to direct trail traffic to one side of the trail. As the fiberoptic network grows, the county plans to install additional cables underneath other rail-trails in the county.
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—and 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 ideal conduits 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. Many utility companies have added their design guidelines for structure placement and allowable vegetation to their corporate website. The websites for railroads and utility companies should be reviewed for guidance before you reach out to them.
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 A-train 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, they 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 needed to make sound financial offers to the railroad corridor owner. However, this usually shouldn’t preclude a trail from sharing the space. If the utility only requires subsurface or air rights—or it 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 provide no-cost access of 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 levels when the railroad was 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, Colorado, which shares its 4-mile paved route with overhead power lines. The Albertson Parkway in San Jose, California—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, bicyclists 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.
Public jurisdictions can take an active role in encouraging utilities to cooperate in trail projects along their rights-of-way. For example, as part of a merger deal between Pepco and Exelon, federal regulators required the company to allow trail use within their transmission rights-of-way in select corridors. This inclusion was thanks to the efforts of local recreation advocates.
Elsewhere, specific legislation has been proposed to support utility and trail synergy. In Colorado, a 2022 proposal was signed into law that requires “transmission providers to provide informational resources and notify local governments regarding the potential for powerline trails when planning for the expansion or construction of transmission corridors.” In Texas, legislators made it easier for utility companies and trail builders to work together by passing legislation that lowered legal barriers for trail development on utility corridors, which could also cut the costs of such transactions.
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 rights-of-way to get an estimate is recommended. Appraisers should be equipped with accurate maps of the corridor showing, at a minimum, all boundaries as well as any places where 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 in the negotiations.
Often, an existing utility right-of-way was itself established through easements with adjacent property owners. In these cases, their permission will most likely be required. Also, it’s important to note that the terms of an agreement may impact the trail project’s eligibility for federal funding. It is not uncommon for transportation facilities and trails to acquire access to corridors through easement, lease, or license agreements. Care needs to be given to protecting the public investment by securing terms of public access for no less than 25 years.
See Acquisition Strategies for more information on different types of acquisition agreements.
The Rich King Memorial Trail, also known as the Florida Power and Light Greenway, is an example of a project in which extensive outreach was needed to engage dozens of adjacent, underlying property owners. The owners ranged from individuals to homeowner associations and church properties. In the end, it was the promise of resolving competing uses for the corridor that convinced neighbors to support the trail. This trail is also a good example of a project in which a utility company perceived it would benefit by improved management of the corridor and reduced trespassing.
Learn more about the early stages of assessment and planning for the Richard King Memorial Trail/Florida Power and Light Greenway.
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 W&O Trail in Northern Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C., 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 for 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 utility companies sharing the corridor, amounting to a few thousand dollars per year. As per their utility crossing fee schedule, the utility companies pay for: 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.
When seeking to construct a trail in an existing utility easement, companies may have a preexisting process (PECO, Northeast Utilities) for requesting the use of their property. These companies may also have strict requirements as to the type of activities and structures allowed on their property. In the case of PECO, some prohibited activities and structures include rain gardens, dumpsters, storage and billboards. Companies may also require a certain clearance between their infrastructure and the trail, as outlined in the National Electrical Safety Code. These restrictions are in place to ensure reliability and safety, and trail builders will have to work within those constraints.
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 Virginia, 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 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.
Another potential benefit of this type of partnership for trail managers can come in the form of cost savings—whether by being granted no-cost access to unused ground space by a utility company—essentially eliminating the normal costs associated with trail acquisition for the community—or by receiving gift-in-kind services or materials from the utility company as compensation for access. This can include trail surfacing, general repair work or overall maintenance. Additionally, 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.
Again, trail easements from utility companies tend to affect structure type and placement, and care should be placed on understanding applicable requirements.
For Utility Companies
Because utility companies regularly seek out long, linear corridors as sites for their services, they usually do not need 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, thereby making nearby residents 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. Likewise, having additional eyes on utility infrastructure by way of trail users can also improve security. By working with landowners and trail supporters at the local level, a utility company can improve its public relations and, in turn, business. In Wisconsin, 98 miles of trails have been constructed on WE Energies corridors, with another 37 in the works. Tom Metcalfe, former president of WE Energies, stated that his company is involved in trails for "environmental stewardship, community access [and] healthy communities.”
In terms of practical maintenance considerations, a trail can provide partial or uninterrupted access to a utility—enabling utility personnel to travel along the corridor to their work sites and more easily reach lines and fixtures. Partial or full access may even be provided for maintenance-related vehicles—depending on the type of surface used for the trail, the size of the corridor, etc.
Additionally, partnering with a trail management agency generally 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 the 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. Similar requirements may be mandated for trails adjacent to irrigation canals to assuage concerns about trail users falling into waterways.
Specific activities and structures may be prohibited for trails along various utility corridors. For the City of San Jose's trail system, agreements between the city and utility company outline mutual safety objectives for trail projects. All of 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. In the extensive Wisconsin trail system, WE Energy has never received a claim from a member of the public or a third party. Regardless, both the utility company and trail managing agency should be insured. The utility carries its general insurance, while a trail’s insurance varies by state and government agency. Any trail’s managing agency with a shared corridor should set up an indemnification agreement with the utility company that requires the utility to assume full responsibility for injuries, damage or expenses arising out of the utility’s operation on the corridor.