Cycling from coast to coast without using a road? New program helps connect routes across the US

By | March 19, 2024

When Mike O’Neil opened his bicycle repair shop in Muncie, Indiana, the Cardinal Greenway trail just outside the window stretched just two miles south of the shop.

Today it extends 33 miles (53 kilometers) further, but the final vision is much grander.

O’Neil hopes the trail emerging from the old railroad lines in eastern Indiana will eventually become a central cog in the proposed Great American Rail-Trail — a continuous network of hiking and biking trails stretching from Washington State to Washington , DC

“As the trail gets longer, more and more people are using it,” says O’Neil, who has completed five bike rides from coast to coast and usually tallies repair costs for out-of-state cyclists who visit his Greenway 500 Bike Shop. , which he has owned for almost twenty years. “It would be a wonderful blessing if everything were connected.”

The Biden administration was set to open applications Tuesday for a new grant program that for the first time will prioritize not just building trails but also connecting existing ones. The bipartisan infrastructure bill of 2021 authorized as much as $1 billion for the program over five years, but Congress has approved less than $45 million so far.

Still, trail activists say the pledge is almost as important as the dollar figure.

“The number isn’t as big as we would like, but the fact that it’s happening is huge,” said Brandi Horton of the Rails to Trails Conservancy. “The government understands in a way we’ve never seen before the role active transportation plays in helping people get to the places they live.”

Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt said active transportation options provide health benefits and are just as important as electric vehicles in limiting greenhouse gas emissions. He remembers biking the trails on the East Coast when he was Delaware’s transportation director and seeing some unsafe holes in the system.

“Unless we fully develop these networks, many people will not be able to benefit from them,” Bhatt said.

Officials expect a highly competitive grant process, including applications from many of the communities along the planned route of the 5,966-mile Great American Rail-Trail. While the ambitious project currently includes more than 125 completed routes in 12 states and the nation’s capital, significant gaps still remain, especially in rural Western states such as Montana and Wyoming.

Michael Kusiek, executive director of the active transportation advocacy group Wyoming Pathways, said reliable routes are especially important for states with rugged terrain. Cyclists and backpackers often skip routes that are not certified as safe, he said.

While state and local governments in rural areas may not prioritize routes the way larger population centers do, Kusiek said the national effort has fueled competition.

“I think we don’t want to be the last to cross the finish line,” Kusiek said.

Wyoming’s northern neighbor, Montana, was awarded a $24 million federal grant last week to expand a recreational trail that had been cut off by a highway and overpass.

Another Montana segment of the Great American Rail-Trail passes the 50,000 Silver Dollar Inn in Haugan. Brooke Lincoln, owner of the motel and other businesses in the area, said linking the routes to a national network could be a major benefit to many small towns.

“We’re very depressed,” Lincoln said. “We have very little private property. Our timber industry has essentially disappeared, so our economy is increasingly based on recreation. The more diverse that base is, the better it will be.”

Amanda Cooley, one of the leaders of an initiative to close the potholes in western Montana, said residents often don’t understand the importance of such projects until they are completed.

“If you go to a place like Deer Lodge, Montana, people still wave at you at the stoplight,” Cooley said. “The pace of life is just a little slower. As a pedestrian or cyclist you experience more. It gives you the opportunity to take in more instead of just flying by.”

Railroads provided most of the major thoroughfares for the Great American Rail-Trail, but many of the proposed connectors pose unique challenges. For example, Ohio and West Virginia have made progress in completing their trail networks, but the Ohio River that separates them is a potentially costly obstacle for both states.

A standalone recreational bridge connecting Steubenville, Ohio, and East Steubenville, West Virginia, could cost more than $35 million, said Mike Paprocki, executive director of the BHJ Metropolitan Planning Commission, which has studied the project. Officials are instead seeking federal funding for a $160 million multimodal bridge for motorized vehicle traffic, with a separate segment for pedestrians and cyclists next to it.

“Without the infrastructure bill, we wouldn’t be having these conversations,” Paprocki said. “We would fight tooth and nail to get money and would probably stay out of food prices.”

Some efforts to expand trails over former railroad lines have also been complicated by legal action. Lindsay Brinton, an attorney with St. Louis-based Lewis Rice, said trails can devalue property and she is working to ensure that the landowners she represents are fairly compensated under the laws that protect their rights.

“People are frustrated and disappointed,” Brinton said. “I have a lot of customers who live in rural Indiana who say, ‘We don’t want a trail here.’ But that can’t even be included in the analysis. Nobody cares what the landowners want.”

Indiana’s Cardinal Greenway trail stretches 60 miles between Marion and Richmond, with a several-mile gap in the middle. In many ways it represents both the future of active transportation and its roots in rail transportation. In fact, the nonprofit organization that manages the trail operates out of a former train depot.

O’Neil, 57, remains optimistic that the trail that runs past his bike shop and stops just short of the Ohio border will eventually take cyclists to that state and then all the way to the East Coast. How quickly that will happen, however, depends on finding much larger pots of money to fill the gaps.

“We are oh so close,” he said.

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