Rails To Trails Project Gathers Steam

By ROBBIE McMILLAN
Special to the News & Record - November 29, 2004

If recreation enthusiasts have their way, Southside Virginia soon will be crisscrossed by hiking and biking trails where railroad lines used to lie. Members of the Roanoke River Rails to Trails project say they’re well on their way to completing the first phase of their grand design to create a network of recreation trails in Mecklenburg, Brunswick, Charlotte, Lunenburg and Halifax Counties.

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Carol Corker, a planner with the Southside District Planning Commission, said the initial phase of the Rails to Trails project in the SDPC’s three-county service area of Brunswick, Mecklenburg and Halifax could be complete by April 21 of next year

“There’s a regional effort going on that the planning district is helping to support that would turn abandoned railroad rights-of-way in Mecklenburg, Brunswick and Halifax into trails,” said Corker. Roanoke River Rails to Trails, Inc. (RRRT) is a 501(c)3 corporation that’s been formed to oversee the project. “We’re in negotiations with Norfolk Southern for the property,” added Corker According to Sandra Tanner of La Crosse, president of RRRT, officials will meet with Norfolk Southern in December to discuss the takeover of 174 miles of abandoned railroad corridor in the three counties.

“We have a meeting December 7 with Norfolk Southern to try and acquire the land. It’s about 174 miles in all and it would make a 174 mile loop,” said Tanner. Officials are not sure how much the land may cost and officials say they will know more after their meeting with Norfolk Southern.

The grand design calls for the three-phase development of the Tobacco Heritage Trail in five Southside counties. Phase 1 consists of three segments; one each in Mecklenburg, Brunswick and Halifax. One trail is envisioned in the Lawrenceville area; another will connect the towns of South Hill, La Crosse and Brodnax in the vicinity of a proposed high-speed rail line through La Crosse; and the third trail will tie together Halifax and Charlotte counties around Staunton River State Park.

Eventually, the Tobacco Heritage Trail could run from Pittsylvania through Halifax, north to the towns of Keysville and Meherrin, and east all the way to Greensville County before swinging down to Lake Gaston along the path of the Lake Gaston pipeline.

Halifax Town Manager Carl Espy, who serves as vice-president for RRRT, says the idea behind the trail project is to maximize the assets that Southside Virginia has in abundance — open spaces, scenic beauty and historical significance.

“The way you can promote the trails, from a marketing standpoint, is that you’re going past farmland, you’re going past historic sites, you’re linked to state park, natural resources, state rivers — all of which are rural economic (assets),” Espy said. “If you lose working farms, lose forestland and watersheds because of high development, you’ve lost the thing that convinces people to come here.”

Espy also noted that the Tobacco Heritage Trail could be linked to smaller-scale trail projects — connecting such local landmarks as Berry Hill, VIR, Clarkton Bridge and the Saponi Indian village that once existed near Virgilina and the Mayo River.

Not all the property for the trail will consist of abandoned rail lines. The RRRT envisions using utility and private land easements that it hopes to acquire in negotiations with local landowners. Inevitably, the trail will be broken up into segments.

“There are over 150 miles of abandoned rail road in the three counties,” said Corker, “all of that wouldn’t be able to be used. So there will be long segments, but there will be interruptions. There’s a lot of bridges out; there’s no bridge across the Meherrin River.”

To pay for the trails, RRRT is applying for funding from the T-21 federal transportation enhancement program. Corker said she believes that ongoing funding will come from visitors to the trail.

“A long distance trail will draw people. The Virginia Creeper Trail had 156,000 visitors last year and is about 35 miles long from Abingdon to Damascus, VA. The New River State Park Trail is 57 miles long and approximately 500,000 of the park's one million visitors can be attributed to their trail … Representatives from the town of Abingdon stated that they received $2 million in 2004 from their food and lodging tax which they felt could be attributed to the trail and to the Barter Theater. A similar trail project in Pennsylvania had 347,000 visitors a year,” stated Corker.

“They had done an economic impact study which showed that local users spent an average of $4.03/day along the trail. Tourists who traveled more than 60 miles spent an average of $15.44 per visitor per day and if they spent the night, that equals $21 a day. That’s a total impact of $7.26 million,” said Corker. According to Corker, these figures are derived from a trail running approximately 150 miles from Pittsburgh, PA to Cumberland, MD where it connects to the C&O Canal Towpath trail.

If successful, the rails-to-trails initiative could have that kind of economic impact in Southside Virginia while serrving to protect the region’s rural flavor.

“It’s a positive economic development tool that respects local character and preserves regional resources,” said Espy.