A Conversation With the 2021 Rail-Trail Champion: Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb
The Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champions Award has honored 40 individuals around the nation who have made significant contributions to the rail-trail movement through their hard work, volunteerism or support—in short, people who have gone above and beyond in the name of trails.
In the state that’s home to the Indianapolis 500, speed is a matter of pride.
In Indiana, that spirit extends to the priority the state’s leadership is putting on nonmotorized recreation and active transportation. The state’s Next Level Trails program, part of the broader Next Level Connections infrastructure directive pushed by Indiana Governor Eric J. Holcomb, is investing millions to accelerate trail development across the state.
The program, which levels the playing field for trail projects of all sizes and spreads investment to small towns, suburbs and urban hubs alike, could serve as a model for other states and is one reason that Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) is honoring Holcomb as the 2021 Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champion. And while the governor says that he and his office are all-in on trail development, he credits the state’s trail-building momentum to community trail-advocacy groups that have been laying the groundwork for years before he took office in 2017—making it possible now to “help connect all kinds of pre-existing dots on the Indiana trail map.”
On Jan. 4, 2022, the governor spoke with Rails to Trails magazine about why trail development warrants such a fast pace in Indiana, and what it means to be at the crossroads of the Great American Rail-Trail™—a 3,700-mile route that will one day connect the country. Here are some of the highlights (in an edited form) from my conversation with Gov. Holcomb.
When complete, Indiana’s section of the 3,700-mile Great American Rail-Trail will stretch for 215 miles across the state.
Why are trails so important to you and to your vision for Indiana?
We have to go back a ways into my childhood, I guess. … I grew up going to state parks for birthdays and holidays and family reunions, and we always would end up out on a trail.
Trails, to me, have just been [places] to be alone if you want that, or [to] go out with friends and family. It truly underscores that sometimes the simplest things in life are the finer things in life. To just be able to go out and look at a leaf or a wildflower or listen to a woodpecker or an owl or just see the natural beauty surrounding you—it’s therapeutic.
Trails really do provide that inner peace, and that is priceless. And we saw that, obviously, over the course of the last couple years here in the state of Indiana with the pandemic. People were flocking to our trails, and thankfully we had kind of a head start [to meet] that demand. So we’re fully committed to continuing to build these [trail] connections throughout our entire state.
“We’ve got the Indiana welcome mat out; we’re leaving the light on. We have so many things to show you [along] the route.”
—Gov. Eric Holcomb
When you think about your vision for the state, and the things that you hope for that trails can deliver, what are you looking for? Why trails?
Trails are another natural way to erase lines or divisions in society. And I’m passionate about that. [In Indiana], we all live relatively close to one another, whether it’s in an urban or rural or suburban neighborhood or community. And trails connect us to each other. … If we have the financial wherewithal and the will and the commitment to connect [these trails and] urban, rural, suburban living, then we expose ourselves to a world outside of our daily lives. And that is a really good thing. … We get to pull each other closer together and bridge those divides.
One of the things our team has been so inspired by is your administration’s Next Level Trails program. What inspired that program for you?
Well, I think where it really took off is, you know, we fancied ourselves for a long time as being the crossroads of America. And this is about quality of life.
When you look at vibrant communities, one thing in common—the common denominator—is outdoor amenities. People today want to work where they want to live. And so we approached it from [the standpoint of] how are we going to be a very attractive place to live … work and play and study and hopefully stay?
Trails were that X-factor that was almost always a luxury. We said, “How do we take this all to the next level?” And we viewed [the investment in trails] as an investment in our transportation system, in our infrastructure program—just as important as roads, bridges, rail, airports and water ports.
We put our money where our mouth is, quite frankly, and we said we’re going to devote a serious amount of funding to this effort for locals to partner with us. … What ended up happening was the success stories spoke for themselves, and the outpouring of interest and investment really made our case for us.
It turns out the support and all the positive ramifications of those investments—pulling communities together, exercise, fresh [air], you know, taking a deep breath of fresh air—all those things added up. And now we have a chorus of individuals [supporting this] … in our Statehouse and state Senate.
Indiana hosts the cross-country Great American Rail-Trail for 215 miles. What does it mean to the state of Indiana to be part of a national project like this?
We feel fortunate, quite frankly, and again, back to being known as the crossroads, we want to be the cross-trails of America as well.
That’s just a natural expression of [us saying] we want to contribute more. We’ve got the Indiana welcome mat out; we’re leaving the light on. We have so many things to show you [along] the route … being part of that national passport, if you will, for this trail is a huge deal to the state of Indiana because we truly do want to put the heart in the heartland and want folks to see all that we have to offer along their coast-to-coast journey. Because America has so many differing terrains and exposures … the heartland is something special, and we want to be part of that, and I’m proud to be.
I have one final question for you. Maybe a bit of a wager. Your state is 50% complete, roughly, for the Great American Rail-Trail. What are the odds that Indiana is the first state to finish?
High odds, high odds. Challenge accepted. We’re going to be paying close attention to the competition, but we won’t wait for second [place] to catch us.