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NC Rail Trails

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NC Rail Trails

Riding the Rail-Trails in North Carolina

It has been more than a half a century since the first record of a rails-to-trails initiative began in the United States. After the railroad deregulation in the early 1980s, miles of train track began to be ripped from the ground, leaving clear paths of land.

As miles of railroads were abandoned, many envisioned a use for these clear, open spaces. The discarded stretches of train track often ran through otherwise untouched sections of nature. These seemed perfect places to experience the beauty of the outdoors.

However, cutting a trail for hikers and bicyclists could not be justified financially. With the railroad tracks out of the way, the expense of cutting a trail was already completed. Some had a visionary use for this abundance of abandoned trails.

In North Carolina, a group of bicycle enthusiasts were trying to find a safer way to bike from Durham to Research Triangle Park. However, their initiative would stumble into some resistance in North Carolina.

With hundreds of miles of abandoned railway weaving through acres of natural lands, North Carolina was a perfect place for rail-trail advocates. Here’s a little of the history behind the North Carolina Rail Trails (NCRT).

Through the tireless efforts of visionaries who see the benefit of the rail-trail projects, there are a number of existing trails in North Carolina, plus nearly two-dozen proposed projects. We’ll also discuss why legal roadblocks preventing more trails are rooted in existing legislation.

History of the North Carolina Rail Trails

Railroads gradually started to discontinue using unproductive stretches of railway after a federal deregulation in the early 1980s. Bicyclists and hikers both had a collective vision for these already clear pathways.

Many appreciated that these stretches of right away were perfect for recreational activities such as biking and hiking. Most were flat enough to allow casual biking and walking. The existing pathways were cleared and had a gentle slope.

Several of the targeted trails were easily adapted to meet state and federal handicap access guidelines. The abandoned rail corridors were perfect for diverse array of leisure activities as well.

Joggers, walkers, bike riders, or even horseback riding could use them with equal ease. All that was needed was the right to access. That’s where legal problems started. When a railroad abandoned a specific corridor, they were no longer obligated under property tax laws.

Local governments, including those in North Carolina, immediately shifted responsibility to adjacent landowners. This filled the tax revenue void left behind by the railroad, but it put up an obstacle blocking future practical use of these existing pathways.

All sorts of legal questions began to surface. Some felt the lands should fall under existing public domain laws. However, by reverting ownership and tax responsibility back to proximal property owners, the efforts to transform these into trails became difficult.

Now, anyone proposing a public use type of trail using the abandoned right away had to gain rightful access from every individual who the right away was returned. This created situations that were frequently far too costly to even pursue.

However, through the noble efforts from individuals like Al Capehart, visionaries who saw the economic and environmental benefit of such rail-trail projects, a steering committee evolved in the summer of 1988.

From this committee came the NCRT. The non-profit project to promote the transfer of abandoned railway into useful recreational trails was incorporated in March 1990. It earned IRS tax status later that year.

The status as a member of the North Carolina Land Trust agency has proven invaluable. The NCRT can legally hold rail corridors or sections of abandoned railroad in trust until local communities or organizations make a legal proposal for use.

The First North Carolina Rail-Trail

Designated as the flagship trail, The American Tobacco Rail-Trail has provided invaluable research data. Through funding from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, a Durham study was conducted on the viability of the rail-trail, including economic and cultural impact.

One key aspect of the study was how rail-trails affected crime rates in adjacent communities. The study found that while some crime did happen on the American Tobacco Rail-Trail (ATT), the percentages fell below area averages.

Total documented crimes committed on the rail-trail made up less than one half of a percent of all area crime reports. The ATT was not crime free, but it was much safer than the surrounding community.

This was a significant blow to detractors who insisted these rail-trails would become prime areas for criminal activity. Nearly 90 percent of the individuals who were surveyed agreed that the rail-trail was safe.

One aspect of the Durham study that has helped in the development of other trails was the insistence of those interviewed that better lighting was important. Designers now use this study as a model when drafting the lighting requirements for existing and potential new rail-trails.

At odds with the mistaken perception of rail-trails being prone to high crime was the idea of the viable economic impact. Another successful rail-trail used many of the study’s findings to improve and expand one of North Carolina’s most popular projects.

There is a 13-mile rail-trail that connects small towns in Rutherford County. Once the Thermal Belt Railway, there is has helped boost local economies along its route. The Thermal Belt Rail-Trail follows the path of a railroad line with roots as far back as the Civil War.

At one point in 2010, the county’s unemployment rate stood at nearly 20 percent. Rutherford County Manager Steve Garrison credits the Thermal Belt for having helped carve that number down under 5 percent.

It has proven an attraction for new residents and has boosted the average level of income in every adjoining community. The Thermal Belt Rail-Trail is a crown-jewel for the North Carolina Rail-Trail initiative.

North Carolina Rails to Trails Today

Today, there are 31 total rail-trails in North Carolina. These 31 trails cover over 125 miles. Existing right away has been established for another 21 rail-trail projects currently in the works.

Despite having 125 miles of existing rail-trails, there are estimates that more than twice that amount is still available for potential new projects. Funding for new trail initiatives can be obtained through the Federal Transportation Alternatives (TA) program.

The TA program has already set aside more than $22 million for rail-trails across the country. Anyone who wants help with a possible rail-trail can contact the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy for guidance towards securing right away grants and funding for new trails.

One small organization is helping build short, but critical trails around Charlotte. The Carolina Thread Trail project is responsible for a short, but useful trail connecting downtown Belmont with Belmont Abbey College.

Similar rail-trails, albeit shorter than some large-scale projects, are proving successful because of the immediate needs they address. Another model trail project has been the expanding Cloninger Rail Trail.

The first one-mile segment opened in 1997. The Cloninger Rail Trail has continued to add new sections, each helping to connect parts of Lincolnton, North Carolina. It has proven useful for both recreational purposes and environmentally conscious commuter choices.

Frequently Asked Questions about the North Carolina Rail Trails

Q: How can the NCRT help local communities win access to use an abandoned railway corridor?

A: The North Carolina Rails to Trails (NCRT) started to assist local governments and communities with rail to trail objectives in 1989. Interested parties can contact the NCRT by email or phone.

They will supply with information and help interested parties understand the laws and how the conversion process works on a statewide level. The NCRT can help research existing abandoned corridors and help interested parties pursue a rail to trail grant.

Q: Some insist that rail-trails attract crime and vandalism, is this true?

Reports have shown that there is zero evidence to support any assertion that a railway converted to a public path increases crime or vandalism. In fact, there is clear indication of the opposite. The level of misconduct by vagrants on abandoned, unused stretches of railway far exceeds any documented reports from railways that have been converted.

Q: How do rail-trails affect property values?

There is a mistaken idea that having a public right away adjacent to the corridor will somehow reduce the property value. With respect to the rails to trails projects, this is untrue.

A rail-trail actually improves the aesthetic value of the right away, turning an abandoned strip of an old railroad into a usable stretch of land. Rail-trails have been shown to actually increase property values, not reduce them.

Q: Who builds North Carolina Rail-Trails and who takes care of them?

A: The vast majority of the rail-trails across most of the country are built and maintained by government agencies. In some places, the trails are awarded to public non-profit organizations such as Friends of the Trail.

In North Carolina, there are local and state operated trails. However, most are built and overseen through coordinated efforts of local communities and the NCRT. Volunteer groups secure the funding to build the rail-trails and then handle most of the maintenance.

Q: Are there funds available to secure and build rail-trails in North Carolina?

A: North Carolina has two current programs available for rail-trail development. The Recreational Trails Program provides funding and guides individuals wanting to convert an existing railway into trails.

The second grant program is the Adopt-A-Trail (AAT). Through a coordinated effort with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, funding and is available for approved rail-trail applications.

Q: Can local governments request and receive additional federal types of funding?

A: There are federal funds available for approved rail-trail projects. North Carolina’s flagship rail-trail, the American Tobacco Trail, received a federal grant to fund a large portion of the construction.

Gastonia’s Highland Rail-Trail received nearly $1 million in monies awarded as part of a Federal Stimulus funding project for economic improvements of the downtown corridors. After certain minimum county funding targets are reached, federal funds can be requested.

Q: What is the Rail Corridor Round Table and how does it affect rail-trails?

A: In the mid-1990s there was a need for a platform to explore ways to encourage the discussion surrounding how to protect North Carolina’s rail corridors. The RCRT includes members from the North Carolina Rail-Trails, the railroads themselves, plus divisions of the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

The round table meets six times each year and also hears voiced concerns from local tourism and commerce officials. North Carolina’s Department of Parks and Recreation is also an important member of the round table. Collectively, they strive to produce the most efficient use and transition of the state’s rail corridors.

NC Rails Trails Laws – What They Mean

A key US Supreme Court ruling was instrumental in the progress of the NC Rails Trails. As a federal case materialized from 2013 through early 2014, the courts debated a right of ownership associated with inactive railway right-of-ways.

In March 2014, the US Supreme Court voted by an 8 to 1 margin on what railway right of way means. The Court insisted that just because a government had been granted a right-of-way to build a railway, those rights were not set indefinitely if the railroad was no longer used.

The question then became who had the right to use the land that the rails were one. Did the property owners adjacent to the railway have first rights, or did the governments, most previous owners of the right-of-way have the right to allow for special considerations?

One of these special considerations at the forefront of the decision was the rails-to-trails initiative. There have been efforts to change the existing process to make it easier for local communities and non-profit rail-trail interests to secure the necessary right away for projects.

This is the history behind the development of the North Carolina Rail-Trails. Communities across the state have seen the benefits of such transformations. Existing projects and proposed future rail-trails continue through the tireless efforts of dedicated volunteers.

If you have a rail-trail in your community, you should get out and experience it. For those areas that have unused old railroad access wasting away, consider stepping forward and volunteering as an advocate for rail-trails in North Carolina.

They have set up various trails for the people to enjoy their experience of hiking in North Carolina. This has benefitted family and me in finding natural sources of de-stressing from everyday life.

– Sue C. Miles –


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