“Rails to Trails” projects are popular public works efforts that convert defunct train tracks into lengthy linear parks. Used for walking, biking, running, and sometimes horseback riding, this creative repurposing of historic transportation routes creates amenities out of eyesores. The Blackwater Heritage State Trail, a rails-to-trails project in Milton, Florida, is an excellent local example of this. Officially designated part of the state Greenways and Trails system, the 10.5-mile paved pathway stretches from downtown Milton to Naval Air Station Whiting Field. The former logging train route passes along homes, farms, rivers, and forests, providing a full spectrum of ecosystems in the area.
The Burlington Greenway Bike Path in Vermont is a successful rails-to-trails project which winds from the city center along neighborhoods, parks, and schools for 13 miles to a stretch along Lake Champlain. There’s even a ferry that will transport bikers across the lake to surrounding islands. Besides the recreational amenity, the trail has been a boost for real estate, with trail access adding value to homes adjacent to it. Many schoolchildren take the trail as their route to school, and local bike shops have embraced this, holding learn-to-ride events and bike giveaways to encourage young students to bike the trail. Several businesses—snack bars, ice cream shops, bike rental facilities—have built up along the trail in central Burlington, creating additional economic impact.
Perhaps the crown jewel of the American rails-to-trails movement is New York City’s High Line. Converted from an elevated train route to a beautifully landscaped walking trail, the High Line winds two stories up and approximately 1.5 miles through the city. Staffed by park gardeners and trail educators, the once loud and gritty tracks have been transformed to a linear oasis winding through the city’s skyline. The contrasting view of lush blooming flower beds next to large city buildings is fascinating! Visitors can wander the high line trail on their own or participate in a guided tour, and trail staff offer a wide variety of activities including art workshops, stargazing, and school field trips.
Rails to trails projects provide recreational opportunities and environmental benefits to areas that might otherwise become blighted. If you are interested in a rails-to-trails project in your community, check out one of these grant opportunities featured on the Rails to Trail Conservancy website.