Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Reflects on Its 32nd Year As America’s Voice for Trails

Posted 06/12/18 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in America's Trails, Building Trails, Success Stories

Elizabeth River Trail | Photo by TrailLink user krmurphy

Approximately 32 years ago, a group of people, including walking and biking enthusiasts, conservationists, history buffs and active-transportation advocates, began to gather in Washington, D.C. to discuss how they could mobilize to preserve unused rail corridors for public use. 

Though rail-trails had begun to materialize in the 1960s, there were few completed miles on the ground by the mid-1980s—with estimates ranging from a couple hundred to a couple thousand—and there were no major federal funding programs dedicated to trail development.

The Railbanking Act of 1983 had just begun to make its mark on the American landscape, beginning with the Sauk Rail-Trail in Iowa—and skeptics of the group, of which there was no shortage, maintained that “people would never support a trails organization.”

Fast-forward three decades: RTC has witnessed a massive growth in the rail-trail and active transportation movement since its formal founding in 1986, and today, more than 23,000 miles of completed rail-trails now span through every corner of the United States. 

As we forge ahead, we pause to celebrate another incredible year—made possible by a grassroots community of 1 million+ peoplenoting how rail-trails serve as the backbones for many local and regional trail systems that are changing lives, revitalizing neighborhoods and helping to bring in a new Age of Connectivity.

Here’s just a quick snapshot of our successes in 2017. To learn more about our work, view our FY 2017 Annual Report.

Looking Back on 2017

Connecting America’s Communities

This year, we welcomed two new stars to our TrailNation™ project portfolio—including the Lower Rio Grande Valley Active Plan, or “Active Plan,” a 428-mile trail network in Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley, and the Miami LOOP, a 225-mile project in Miami-Dade County, Florida—making for a total of eight trail network projects across the country that are serving as national models for the transformative benefits of trails.

McKelvey Park in Harlingen, Texas | Photo by Mark Lehmann

Spanning through a region containing some of the country’s highest levels of poverty, obesity and chronic disease, the Active Plan trail network will not only jumpstart a wave of active outdoor tourism for the Lower Rio Grande Valley—it will serve as a major driver for physical activity among residents and help to tackle some of the serious health issues prevalent in Cameron County.

West Orange Trail in Florida | Photo by Ryan Cree
West Orange Trail in Florida | Photo by Ryan Cree

The Miami LOOP is looking to be no less impactful, with estimates showing that just two trails in the network could help avoid 119 million miles of driving over 15 years—nearly the distance from Earth to Mars.

Recognizing that real transformative change can come not just in big leaps but also in small bounds, we continued our efforts to support communities on the ground seeking to complete their trails and trail networks through programs such as our Doppelt Family Trail Development Fund and our research program, which in 2017 focused on demonstrating how two trail projects in Milwaukee could provide much-needed walking and biking access for tens of thousands of the city’s underserved residents.

Amplifying Our Collective Voice

With the help of thousands of passionate voices across the country, RTC’s advocacy team was hard at work—mobilizing to protect America’s largest federal funding programs for trails that have to date provided more than $15.6 billion in funding to support trail and active transportation projects.

In partnership with leading trail groups and walking and biking organizations, we specifically amplified our message across 10 states and helped secure more than $338 million in new and recurring state funding programs, which are innovating how communities integrate trails, and walking and biking infrastructure to create balanced transportation systems.

Speakers at a rally for the Rock Island Trail in Missouri | Photo by Brandi Horton
Speakers at a rally for the Rock Island Trail in Missouri | Photo by Brandi Horton

The spirit of this advocacy played out not just in our legislatures but in small towns, like in Missouri, where residents united outside the State Capitol in August 2017 to communicate to local leaders the real value of their trails for economic revitalization and neighborhood vitality.

Recognizing Our Champions—Past and Present

It is with pride and gratitude each year that we recognize the exemplary rail-trails that have helped build our movement mile by mile, and the extraordinary people who have guided—and fought for—the creation of these vital assets.

In 2017, the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame was pleased to welcome Louisiana’s Tammany Trace, the state’s first rail-trail and one of the first in the country supported by a landmark federal program enacted in 1991 that made it possible for federal transportation money to support walking and biking projects.

We also welcomed two new Rail-Trail Champions into the fold—Ross Greathouse and Lynn Lighter—for their four decades of leadership, volunteerism and sweat equity on behalf of trails, which resulted in some of Nebraska’s well-loved rail-trail treasures, including the 23-mile Chief Standing Bear Trail, a cultural and historical treasure that honors the legendary chief of the Ponca Tribe and stretches from Beatrice to the Nebraska-Kansas border.

David Burwell and fellow Rail-Trail Champions in 2011 | Photo courtesy Rails-to-Trails ConservancyDavid Burwell (right) and fellow Rail-Trail Champions in 2011 | Photo courtesy Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
David Burwell (right) and fellow Rail-Trail Champions in 2011 | Photo courtesy Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

And though it was with deep sadness that we mourned the passing of RTC Co-Founder David Burwell on Feb. 1, 2017—we were overwhelmed thinking about the legacy David left behind, in the more than 2,000 rail-trails his voice helped make a reality, and the federal legislation that continues to ensure these pathways will help create healthy, vital, active and connected communities.

As we celebrate 2017, we extend our gratitude to the late David Burwell, and to the national trail community David helped build, which has made our work possible for the past 32 years.

comments powered by Disqus