THE GREAT AMERICAN RAIL-TRAIL VISION
Imagine pedaling across the entire country on a safe, seamless and scenic pathway—or walking a local trail that connects you to historic routes from coast to coast. You’re enthralled in the experience of exploring America’s heritage—its potential, its beauty and bounty, its people and places. Consider the intimacy of taking in all the country has to offer from the most personal vantage point: the trail.
Spanning more than 3,700 miles, the Great American Rail-Trail promises an all-new American experience. The trail travels through 12 states and the District of Columbia, connecting trail users and communities from Washington to Washington, and possibly someday from the Atlantic to the Pacific. As the first cross-country trail of its kind, the “Great American” will be hosted primarily by rail-trails—public paths created from former railroad corridors—as well as other multiuse trails, offering a route across the nation that is completely separated from vehicle traffic. Upon its completion, the Great American will serve more than 50 million people within 50 miles of its route, as well as the millions from across the country and the world who will explore America’s diverse places via the trail.
The potential for a trail of this magnitude has been on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s (RTC’s) radar since the early days of RTC, some three decades ago, when co-founder David Burwell first dreamed of a trail for the nation. It would not be long before this dream would transform into vision, as RTC began to track rail-trail development in the 1980s, and the skeleton for a cross-country trail began to take shape. While the team at RTC “always knew” the potential for this trail, it also knew the significant undertaking and commitment required to get it done, thus setting two criteria for determining the trail’s potential: a viableroute that was more than 50% complete, and a pathway across the west.
Washington, D.C.—as the nation’s capital and the home to RTC’s national headquarters—had always been earmarked as the eastern terminus for a cross-country trail. In 2016, RTC staff traveled to Wyoming and Montana to explore route solutions in the west, as traversing the rugged mountains presented the same challenges to trail development as to the railroads that came before. In 2017, preliminary GIS analyses revealed multiple potential cross-country route options between Washington, D.C., and Washington State that were more than 50% complete. It was then that RTC knew the Great American Rail-Trail had the potential to become reality. Since then, the team at RTC has met with hundreds of trail partners along the preferred route for the trail as well as state agencies to align this vision with state and local trail priorities.
The Great American Rail-Trail marks RTC’s most ambitious trail project to date and the single greatest trail project in the history of the country; its future is possible thanks to the hard work of the local trails community and countless volunteers, as well as the support and enthusiasm of each of the states it crosses.
THE “GREAT AMERICAN” IMPACT
Now—and at an even grander scale when complete—the Great American Rail-Trail will magnify the economic, social and community benefits that trails have delivered to people and places for decades. For example, a study conducted by RTC in 2014 found that Pennsylvania’s Three Rivers Heritage Trail—a trail along the route of the Great American—generates an estimated $8.3 million annually as a result of outdoor tourism and local business patronage. As a large-scale, cross-country trail network, the Great American has the potential to generate billions of dollars a year for communities along its route by increasing trail connectivity between places, catalyzing new investment in trailside businesses and commercial opportunities, and enhancing tourism as well as outdoor recreation, which, according to a report by the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, is currently the fastest-growing industry in the country.
As new trails and connecting corridors are developed, communities along the Great American route will also gain safer walking and biking access to the places they want to go—like jobs, public transportation and shopping centers. All who enjoy the Great American will have better access to the outdoors as the trail intersects with green space within communities and connects to public lands along the route.
THE PREFERRED ROUTE OF THE “GREAT AMERICAN”
RTC embarked on a 12-month assessment of route options using its GIS database of more than 34,000 miles of existing, multiuse trails nationwide, and analyzing more than 300 state and local trail plans to identify planned future trails. RTC also met and worked with more than 200 local trail partners and more than 50 state agencies representing the trails along the route, shaping criteria to ensure safe, non-motorized travel on a route that is entirely walkable and bikeable. These trail criteria specify that the Great American Rail-Trail be one contiguous route that is preliminarily more than 80%, and ultimately entirely, off-road and separated from vehicle traffic; comprise existing trails to the extent possible; be reasonably direct from Washington to Washington; be amenable to the state and local jurisdictions through which it will cross; and serve as a catalyst for local economic development, including providing services for long-distance travelers.
Through the assessment, RTC and its partners have defined the preferred route of the Great American Rail-Trail as more than 3,700 miles—with approximately 2,026 miles of existing trails (trails along the route that are built and maintained by dedicated teams of local staff and volunteers) and 1,744 miles of identified trail gaps (sections of trail that still need to be developed).
While there are more than 1,700 miles of trails to complete along the route of the Great American Rail-Trail, each trail gap has one or more future trail options identified as possible trail connections. Many of these gaps and proposed future trails are already identified in public plans that have been adopted at the state and local levels. Insight from local trail partners and states has helped to identify the preferred alignment that best corresponds with their priorities, with the intention of maximizing existing trail momentum as the Great American Rail-Trail is connected across the country.