Let me start off by saying that trails are wonderful things. I am involved in a local trails group and wish that I wish we could have trails everywhere. Trails for recreation, transportation, routes to school, routes to work, you name it. When it comes to transportation investments however, would I value a trail or a decent functioning rail transportation system? I will take the choo choo any day of the week.
So the Rails to Trails organizational goals are to essentially ‘bank’ fallow rail lines until they are needed again. Let me repeat the most important part…..until they are needed again. So if I own a rail line, but I don’t have enough business to warrant continuing operation along that line, but I want to see that it is preserved as a rail transportation corridor, I can let the line be converted into a trail. My tax liability goes away and in the meantime, a fun and useful trail can be built on the line for people to enjoy. Win! Win!
However, once those trails become integrated into the community, people begin to consider the trail a community asset and it is difficult to see or remember that the existing rail line was even there at all. I understand this sentiment and can imagine how difficult it is for a community to let go of something like that.
So why bring this up right here, right now. There are a number of rail lines in the State of Maine that have been converted to rail trails. These are in fact great assets to the communities, but if they can safely and efficiently carry passenger and freight rail traffic on them, then they need to be railroads again.
America is at an interesting juncture right now. We are at a point where rail transportation is becoming economically feasible due to high oil prices. In Maine where 3 rail corridors between the New Hampshire Border and the Greater Bangor area have nearly 60% of the population within 5 miles of rail line, we have a tremendous opportunity to establish sensible transportation opportunities. It won’t be for everyone of course, but if you live in a town like Augusta or Waterville and work in Downtown Portland or Bangor, this has the potential to save you money, increase your productivity, and get you somewhere safe and fast.
So what is the middle ground here? What if, where feasible, you could build a trail next to a working rail line? What if the track was at one time double track and only required a single track? Would it not be easier to seek easements and takings next to a functioning rail line to build trails on properties that abut the line, but don’t require a connection to it? I am thinking farms or forests here, not an industrial area. There is a middle ground in many cases.
Where it isn’t feasible or safe to build something like the trail above, then don’t do it. Rails to trails people, if the train is coming back on a line and it will take away your trail, let it happen. Seek the middle ground and see what can be worked out, but do not put up a fight to keep the trail where a higher use of transportation needs to be.
Transit people and bike/pedestrian people are on the same side. We want mobility choices that aren’t reliant on foreign oil, congested roadways, and time spent in gridlock. We want sensible transportation choices that don’t require over 15% of our income to be spent on the automobile industrial complex. When the train comes back to town, let it come. That is the time to start pushing for bike lanes, shared streets, and new bike and pedestrian easements elsewhere. I am sure that in most cases a reasonable compromise or solution can be made, it is just a matter of asking the right questions and thinking about reasonable compromises.
Source Materials: http://railswithtrails.com/
Photo Credits: http://www.flickr.com/photos/luton/465706031/