“I hope that [the Great American Rail-Trail] will be at the top of the caucus’ agenda this year."
—Rep. Carey Hamilton
In September, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) was pleased to designate Indiana State Rep. Carey Hamilton as the 2022 Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champion for her leadership in the founding of the Indiana Legislative Trails Caucus, which has helped accelerate trail network development throughout the Hoosier State.
On Sept. 13, 2022, RTC gathered with Indiana trail advocates and legislative leaders to honor Rep. Hamilton at a special ceremony in Muncie along the Cardinal Greenway—a gateway host of the developing cross-country Great American Rail-Trail®. During the event, Rails to Trails’ Brandi Horton sat down with Rep. Hamilton to chat about her passion for trails and efforts to help lead the build-out of Indiana’s statewide trail network.
Check out the interview, below, which has been published in an edited format.
“To be able to build out the best trails network in the nation is really my dream."
—Rep. Carey Hamilton
Brandi Horton: Congratulations Carrie, for the honor of being a rail-trail champion. As you know, it's something that we do once a year, and it is to recognize people who have gone above and beyond for trails in the country. We're … honored to be recognizing you and just so grateful for all the work that you do.
I want to start this conversation with just simply what got you interested in trails.
Rep. Hamilton: Well first of all, I'm so excited to have this recognition. This is an issue that I'm very passionate about. It … goes back to a conference I attended in 1994. I had just graduated college, and I was able to go to an Urban Land Institute conference and learn about the lack of planning for people and development for many years … decades leading up to that point. So that started me thinking about the built environment and how people need to be served better on foot, on bike, etc.
I was also a passionate hiker and spent six months, a couple of years later, hiking the Appalachian Trail … [and] became even more passionate about … more recreational types of hiking and trails. And it's just exploded ever since then. I've enjoyed rails-to-trails in all the communities I’ve lived in.
Certainly, as a legislator, understanding the value of trails from a public health perspective, quality of life, economic development—it's so exciting, when trails come into communities, to see the local businesses pop up and centers of activity and community engagement come together around those trails.
Brandi Horton: We see that all over the country. And to see what's happening in Indiana really catapulting the state to the forefront of the trails movement, we would say, there's so much innovation and leadership—your leadership. [Combined] with what's happening in the administration side, together it's like the secret sauce that is creating sustainable, ongoing funding for trails. It's really, really powerful. I'm curious; when you look at Indiana, what's your hope for the trail system here?
Rep. Hamilton: We in Indiana—we don't have mountains, we don't have oceans, but we have beautiful countrysides and waterfronts. And to be able to build out the best trails network in the nation is really my dream. The opportunities that we’ll create for the folks that live in every single Hoosier neighborhood, but also to build on our tourism industry, and again, support more local economic development throughout our communities, [are] just tremendous. And we can do it. We absolutely can. We have the resources and, I think, the growing support and understanding of that value to get the job done.
Brandi Horton: So, we always think about trails as delivering very unique value to urban, suburban and rural communities. How do you see that translate to the landscape in Indiana?
Rep. Hamilton: That's one of the most rewarding parts of my work in the Statehouse … finding advocates among my colleagues who represent very different communities from my own. I'm in a kind of suburban area. Certainly, we have members of the trails caucus who are more urban, ex-urban, but also countless rural members—truly rural communities. And trails can serve every single one of our communities.
And that's what makes this work … so rewarding at this time in the world where certainly in our nation and our political landscape, so many things are so divisive. But to be able to come together on this and build relationships around trails and connectivity is really rewarding.
Brandi Horton: We've been doing this ride across the Great American Rail- Trail in Indiana, and we've been having a lot of fun. We've got a small group of folks out here to learn a bit more about the Great American Rail Trail, to [elevate] what's happening in Indiana on the trail.
Sometimes you meet people and they're like, "What is this? What is a rail- trail?" When you're talking to some of your constituents or some of your colleagues in the legislature, how do you explain why trails matter?
Rep. Hamilton: I think of trails and bike and pedestrian connectivity [as being] in the same bucket, and I think of it as essential infrastructure that we ignored for decades. We have built our communities for cars and not for people. And when we start to build our communities more for people, the value is just immediately apparent to voters, right? So that helps us make the case at the Statehouse. And it truly is essential infrastructure.
My background is in environmental policy. And today we see communities and states and nations building on their climate mitigation strategies to include bike and pedestrian connectivity, and trails are key to that. So there are even more benefits than what we've already talked about.
Brandi Horton: You've mentioned the trails caucus a few times, and that's a big part of why we are celebrating you. There are some other caucuses in the country—but the way that Indiana's caucus has formed, how strong that bipartisanship is, the sustained leadership you carried through as other people have come and gone … that's going to set it up for long term success. How did the trails caucus originate for you?
Rep. Hamilton: In January of 2020, I was sitting in the House Chamber. We were at a lull … and I was catching up on my email, and I received an email from the Greenways Foundation of Indiana. And it had, working closely with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a recommendation of starting a trails caucus. And I immediately reached out to Mitch Barloga at the Greenways Foundation. And he just jumped into gear and reached out to the conservancy, and in no time we were launching the caucus. It was actually March 5, 2020, right before the world slowed down. But it did not slow down the work of the caucus. We've had great things happen in these two short years.
Brandi Horton: I might argue that it probably accelerated the work of the caucus a little bit, actually. Tell us a little bit about that.
Rep. Hamilton: Yeah—that's a great point, Brandi. When the pandemic hit and the world closed down, people started to get outside more. And they realized more than they had before how important trails are in their communities. People were looking for the closest trails to get out to. You know, sidewalks are great and important, but when you get onto trails and you have the green cover or the water vista, etc. … that mental health benefit tied to the physical health benefit, at a time when people were so stressed, really elevated the understanding of the value of our work in Indiana.
Brandi Horton: I think that has continued. In Indiana, are you continuing to see people use trails in different ways than they did before?
Rep. Hamilton: I think so, for sure. I think people more and more saw those benefits in their lives, and so they've instituted change. And then their friends saw them getting healthier or feeling better. And that just continues, right? It's become a bit of a snowball effect for support for trails.
Brandi Horton: I couldn't agree more. It has been a real unexpected benefit to all of us. I mentioned that we were on the Great American Rail-Trail today. It's 225 miles in Indiana, and it's about 50% complete. My favorite story out of all the stories is that when we were planning this route, the folks in Indiana said, we want more miles—route it this way, route it that way—so we can get 5 more miles …. What is your hope for the Great American Rail-Trail in Indiana?
Rep. Hamilton: Well, first of all, I'm thankful to the smart people … who had that feedback and made sure we got a lot of miles here in Indiana. I am really excited about the opportunity we have now to build out the full Great American Rail-Trail here. I hope that will be at the top of the caucus’ agenda this year. Certainly, it will be part of my agenda. And I think it will be prominent in the Statehouse this coming year as we go into a budget cycle and look to start to fill in those sections that we still need to complete, that 50%.
I mentioned earlier, the tourism industry: So not only will every community along those sections that haven’t been built yet benefit, but also our tourism industry here in Indiana. [We will be] a real destination with that asset in place.
Brandi Horton: One of the things we see is that when people get out of their cars and they experience communities from the seat of their bike or in their sneakers, everything slows down a bit, and they can actually take in and connect with that restaurant or connect with that person and start to experience the culture of a place. It's so powerful for that tourism and that word of mouth.
We know that bicycle tourism is such a powerful industry in our country. Being able to channel it into communities is a really incredible, incredible benefit. So, tell me … overall, what is your vision for trails in the state of Indiana?
Rep. Hamilton: Oh gosh. It really is absolutely to complete the Great American Rail-Trail across Indiana. But also, I said it before and I'll say it again, to create the best network of trails in the nation.
Hopefully this work that we've done with the caucus can help us leverage new relationships and opportunities to grow support. Not only legislative support—but ... [from] all of our communities to make sure we're pointing in the right direction to make those investments and be a real leader in the nation.
Brandi Horton: Well, we think you're already well on your way. And we're so proud of the work that you have done to set up this caucus and build momentum and energy behind it in a way that is, I think, inspiring to other states. There are already people in North Carolina and a few others that are popping up and saying, “We're doing this, too.” That's what it's going to take to create a whole nationwide network of trails.
Rep. Hamilton: And that's what we also need.
Brandi Horton: Your leadership in Indiana is really helping to push that forward. Thank you so much for everything that you're doing.
Rep. Hamilton: Thank you. And thanks again to the conservancy for your work supporting our work in the caucus and the legislature. It's truly been critical to our success.
Brandi Horton: That's what we're here for. Public-private/nonprofit partnership at its best.
Rep. Hamilton: That's right!
Brandi Horton: Thank you so much.