Virginia continues to add rails-to-trails projects to its already rich inventory of trails and greenways across the Commonwealth. Rails-to-trails offer citizens of all ages and fitness levels trails for walking, cycling, exercise, outdoor pleasure and alternative transportation in localities across the Old Dominion.
As recently featured on PBS’s Virginia Currents television magazine, the James River Branch Trail in South Richmond is just the latest example of another rail-to-trail to potentially be added to the hundreds of miles already in Virginia’s inventory.
According to the Rails to Trails Conservancy, Virginia has 32 rail-trails totaling 283 miles. There are another 12 active projects which, when completed, will add 69 additional miles of trails in the Commonwealth. Some of Virginia’s best examples of rails to trails include the Virginia Creeper Trail, the New River Trail, the W&OD Trail, the newly opened High Bridge Trail and the extensive Tobacco Heritage Trail project.
Nationally, there are 1,631 open rail-trails totaling over 19,578 miles! Another 724 projects are in development which, when completed, will add about 8700 additional miles.
Rails-to-trails projects offer health and environmental benefits, and provide recreation and transportation for local citizens. Frequently, these rail-trails attract thousands of visitors, creating jobs and bringing tourist dollars to local economies.
How It All Began
In the 1970’s, many railroads were facing severe business difficulties and miles of rail corridor were being sold off or even abandoned. Congress allowed rail lines to eliminate unprofitable lines with relative ease. By jettisoning these corridors, many rights-of-way were to permanently disappear and Congress realized it might be almost impossible to reassemble these corridors should demand change in the future. These corridors were being abandoned at an alarming rate — 4000 to 8000 miles per year — and a valuable national resource was being lost.
With this in mind, Congress passed legislation in 1976 called the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act, creating the first Rails-to-Trails Grant Program.
The Rails to Trails Act of 1983 allowed the railroads to “railbank” these corridors by allowing abandoned rail lines to be converted into trails for hiking, biking, equestrian and transportation purposes. Currently, 301 corridors have been successfully railbanked totaling 5,079 miles, and 92 are currently in negotiation, while 159 corridors were abandoned when railbanking negotiations were unsuccessful. Of the railbanked corridors, 120, representing 2,764 miles, are presently open to the public for use as trails and 72 corridors representing 1,122 miles are currently under development.
As a result of railbanking, these rail corridors are preserved for future use, while providing multiple benefits to the communities in which they are located.
A New Concept for Trail Development: Rails-With-Trails
Virginia is leading the way in developing an exciting new trail concept called Rails-WITH-Trails, or trails along activerailway lines. There are over 3000 miles of railroads cris-crossing Virginia. As billions of tax dollars are being spent to enhance and improve active rail corridors, organizations like the Virginia Bicycling Federation are asking that trails be included as an integral part of these projects. To learn more about RWTs, see www.railswithtrails.com .
To see a comprehensive list of existing Virginia rails-to-trails, visit the Rails to Tails Conservancy’s TrailLink website.