Oh, How Far We’ve Come: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Celebrates 30 Years

Posted 01/12/16 by Keith Laughlin in Building Trails, Policy

Heritage Rail-Trail County Park in York, Pennsylvania, inducted into RTC's Rail-Trail Hall of Fame in 2015 | Photo by Carl Knoch

When Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) opened its doors in 1986, we were aware of 250 miles of open rail-trail in America. Today, there are more than 21,000 miles enjoyed by tens of millions of Americans every year.

As we celebrate our 30th anniversary in 2016, I have had cause to ponder the reasons for the success of America’s rail-trail movement.

A Look Back

Me (Keith Laughlin) with our friends in Wisconsin at the 50th anniversary of the Elroy-Sparta State Trail | Photo courtesy RTC

A major catalyst for rail-trail development can be traced to 1980, when Congress deregulated the U.S. railroad industry, permitting the discontinuation of unprofitable routes. As a result, tens of thousands of miles of inactive rail corridor were removed from service in the ensuing decades. In 1983, concerned about permanently losing thousands of miles of these corridors, Congress created “railbanking,” a policy tool to preserve them for future rail use while permitting interim trail use.

From our founding in 1986, RTC’s program work has focused on two activities: policy advocacy and trail development. In the first, we advocate for trail-friendly policies in Washington, D.C., and select state capitals. In the second, we use those policies to catalyze trail development on the ground. This dual role has defined RTC over the years, giving us the unique identity of a Washington-based national organization with the capacity to work at the local level.

Our initial policy work focused on influencing implementation of the new railbanking statute. Those efforts expanded in 1991 when Congress’ federal transportation bill provided significant funding for trail development for the first time through creation of the Transportation Enhancements and the Recreational Trails Programs. For the last 25 years, RTC has remained a steadfast defender of this funding, which has been critical to the success of rail-trail projects around the country.

Southern Comet: Inducted into the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame in 2009 with the Chief Ladiga Trail, the Silver Comet Trail helped spark the southern rail-trail movement. | Photo by Illiad Connally

With regard to trail development, in our first decade, RTC also acquired inactive corridors. The concept was so new that if we didn’t do it, it wouldn’t have happened. As time passed and more rail-trails were successfully built, our primary role shifted to responding to the growing demand for technical assistance from local rail-trail pioneers. This shift has been critical to the growth of our movement—permitting us to be catalysts in hundreds of communities rather than narrowly focusing on just a few.

In the early years, most rail-trails were in rural areas, and the primary benefits were thought to be corridor preservation, recreation and protection of open space. Today, rail-trails traverse the American landscape, providing benefits to rural, suburban and urban communities. And those benefits have expanded to include transportation, economic development, public health and high quality of life.

A Look Ahead

While our 30th anniversary is cause to look back upon our successes, I am far more interested in looking ahead to the opportunities that await us. With thousands of miles of trails on the ground, the most exciting opportunity is connecting individual trails into trail networks.

Schuylkill River Trail, part of the Greater Philadelphia Region's in-progress, 750-mile Circuit Trail network | Photo courtesy Tom Ipri | CC by 2.0

Since 1991, America has invested billions of dollars to create thousands of miles of trails. The vast majority of these trails are well loved and heavily used. But we have not yet maximized their full capacity to produce benefits for America’s communities.

Because the power of connectivity was little understood, these trails were not designed into networks to maximize use. When trail connectivity improves in urban or suburban settings, usage soars as more people can safely and conveniently reach more nearby destinations by foot or by bike. When connectivity improves on trails that link small towns in a scenic rural area, the trail itself can become a destination that attracts trail users—and their tourism dollars—from far and wide.

Regardless of the setting, connectivity can dramatically increase usage—the key factor in producing even more of the numerous economic, public health and environmental benefits that contribute to healthier communities.

Twenty years from now, on the occasion of RTC’s 50th anniversary, it is my fervent belief that we will look back and marvel at our successful efforts to connect America with a seamless network of trails that has created healthy places for healthy people.

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