The moment when a rail-trail vision moves from blueprint to actual construction is a celebration of the ability of America's citizens, communities and businesses to act on the hopes and desires for their community, and make them real.
Last week it happened yet again, this time in northern Mississippi, where a sustained grassroots effort supported by a coalition of local municipalities won funding support for a 44-mile pathway for hikers, bikers and riders of all kinds along an former railway corridor.
Thanks to a $9.6 million Transportation Enhancements (TE) grant administered by the Mississippi Department of Transportation, and a $100,000 Recreational Trails Program (RTP) grant from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, construction began recently on the first stage of what will be known as the Tanglefoot Trail.
The 10-foot-wide paved path for walkers, bicyclists and horseback riders will pass through three counties in rural northeastern Mississippi, and connect a number of towns between New Albany and Houston. The trail, through scenic woodlands and fields, and featuring access to historical sites, is scheduled for completion in early 2013.
The Tanglefoot Trail will run along the former Mississippi-Tennessee Railroad, built by William Faulkner's great-grandfather, Colonel William C. Faulkner, in 1872. The name Tanglefoot comes from the narrow gauge engine of the same name used during construction of the railroad.
The first section will be built in the city of New Albany and will progress southward to completion in Houston. Trail advocates and planners in Mississippi are eager to replicate the success of the Longleaf Trace to the south, which, since it opened in 2000, has become a hugely popular regional asset.
The second phase of the project will consist of the design, development and construction of gateway buildings in New Albany, Pontotoc and Houston. These facilities will serve as trail welcome centers. 'Whistle Stops,' or rest area facilities, will be located in the Ingomar, Ecru, Algoma and New Houlka communities. Already, local entrepreneurs are being asked to consider ways to capitalize on trail traffic through restaurants, cafes, bike shops, bed-and-breakfasts, campgrounds and retail opportunities close to the trail.
Aware of the need to coordinate their individual energy for the project, in 2006 the various municipalities along the trail's route--Chickasaw County, Pontotoc County, Union County, town of Algoma, town of Ecru, city of Houston, city of New Albany, town of New Houlka and the city of Pontotoc--came together to form a Rails to Trails Recreational District. The result was an impressive study in cooperation that ultimately impressed transportation officials of the broad regional demand for the trail.
According to Kelly Pack, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's director of trail development, the announcement of funding for the Tanglefoot Trail is particularly timely, as the U.S. Congress considers a transportation reauthorization bill that could potentially eliminate or severely hobble TE and RTP.
"As we see here, these grant programs enable local entities to build the assets they know their communities need," she says. "They are powerful programs. They are an incredibly efficient use of transportation spending, but it's more than that. They reward this grassroots cooperation--and allow cities and municipalities and residents and local businesses to make good on their visions for where they live."