The Virginia Creeper Trail in Southwestern Virginia. (Photo courtesy of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy)

Virginia’s rural Eastern Shore has been losing residents for decades, but in one aspect of that abandonment, locals see opportunity.

Last month, Canonie Atlantic, the company which owns the tracks on the Eastern Shore, petitioned the federal Surface Transportation Board to decommission a 49.1 miles long rail line from the town of Hallwood to Cape Charles. If their motion is approved, that stretch of tracks would be eligible to be rail-banked — a legal process by which abandoned railways can be converted into shared-use walking, biking, and roller skating paths.

“It’s exciting to envision the new life that this trail could bring to some of these towns along the rail line,” said Robie Marsh, executive director of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Chamber of Commerce. “People can come and stay in one town and cycle to the next couple of towns to make stops, creating new retail, restaurants, and other attractions. It has great potential to attract new tourists, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts as well as improve the quality of life of everyone living on the Eastern Shore.”

Although it will take years for the proposed rail trail to be fully completed, locals are already hopeful the new amenity could help halt or even reverse the peninsula’s decades-long population loss. If current trends persist, the Urban Institute anticipates the Eastern Shore will lose a further 20.89 percent of its population by 2030 — the equivalent of 9,522 residents.

New trail, new growth?

Champe Burnley of the Virginia Bike Federation is bullish about the trail’s potential: “This trail will be a real draw for people to move there. If you look at how many folks live within a one to two hour drive of there, this trail will be transformational from an economic development and quality of life perspective.”

The Southern Tip Bike & Hike Trail in Northampton County is already having a similar effect, and that facility is only one tenth as long as the proposed rail trail. Kelly Pack of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has witnessed trail-driven renewal taking place all across the country. Her organization even has a term for communities who successfully harness such facilities to fuel revitalization: trail towns.

The length and scenic location of the future Eastern Shore rail trail give Pack confidence that it could easily grow into a top tourist attraction, drawing visitors from across the country. “Communities of all shapes and sizes are leaning into this model,” said Pack. “The ability of ‘trail towns’ to draw full benefit from their trail is based off of how much communities lean into the trail—how easy do they make it to get from the trail to main street, how safe can they make it to walk and bike?”

Some places have even made the concept into a formal designation. Along the Great Allegheny Passage in Maryland and Pennsylvania, businesses go beyond just catering to trail users with bike racks and trail maintenance sponsorships. With the aid of a local community development financing institution, local businesses even promote themselves along the path with directional signage advertising.

Burnley even believes the trail could become something of a cash cow for the region. “The average recreational trail user is college educated with a median income over $70,000,” he said. “People who stay overnight typically spend $110-150 per night per person. These tourists leave a wake of cash in their rearview mirror.”

Trails as transportation

Beyond their recreational and economic value, rail trails can also serve as critical transportation connections, especially in rural areas which lack alternatives to private vehicle ownership.

“With Covid there’s now a shift in thinking where people are realizing that biking and walking are not just fun, they’re a critical piece of our transportation system to help people get around,” said Burnley. “I’ve seen people riding their bike on the shoulder of Route 13, and that’s not a comfortable experience. This trail could be a great way to give people a safer alternative to get around the Eastern Shore to run errands, go to work, and get some exercise, but people are not going to do any of that if they don’t feel safe.”

The societal sea change around biking and walking triggered by the pandemic has also swept the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation. “Over the past 6 plus months we’ve been having some good conversations around what role we can play and how we can help communities provide more trails, whether they’re for eco-tourism or transportation,” said Tom Smith, the department’s deputy director of operations. “We’re looking at our grant programs and other state funding to see how we can better serve underserved areas and communities.”

New funding from the Great American Outdoors Act just passed by Congress could turbo-charge grants from Virginia’s Land and Water Conservation Fund that localities often leverage to pay for trail projects. If state funding indeed prioritizes rail trails in rural areas going forward, two of the biggest beneficiaries may be the Shenandoah Rail Trail—a proposed 40 mile long multimodal path between the towns of Broadway and Strasburg in the valley—and the Tobacco Heritage Trail, a partially constructed facility that would link South Boston, Chase City, South Hill, and Lawrenceville if completed. 

Connecting communities both physically and culturally is the whole point of a good trail in Pack’s estimation. “One of the most amazing things about rail trails is that they thrive in all types of places and are something that we consistently see a lot of bipartisan support for,” she said. “The railroad system in this country connected so many different parts of the United States. Many of those corridors that have been abandoned by the railroads once divided communities, but now they have the power to act as a unifying force.”

From abandonment to amenity

The commonwealth is already home to 48 rail trails adding up to more than 400 miles of multimodal paths. The two most famous examples of such facilities are the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Railroad Regional Park — often called the skinniest park in the state — and the Virginia Creeper Trail in the state’s Southwest.

Before the Eastern Shore can enjoy any of the benefits associated with multimodal trails, a lot of work will have to go into its organization and construction. “The purchasing and securing of the land is the easy part, even though that’s not easy,” said Smith. “Once you own the land for the trail, then you’re in the forever business of making sure you have the resources to manage the site successfully, and that often requires multiple partners.”

While Canonie Atlantic awaits federal approval to abandon the tracks (the company expects a response by November 1), a VDOT study of the proposed Eastern Shore Rail-to-Trail project has been underway since May. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, that process has been quietly chugging forward and is set to wrap up this October. With the future alignment set and the nearly $25 million price tag established, the next step for an Eastern Shore rail trail is for the localities, the metropolitan planning organization, and interested parties to come together and figure out who would pay for an economic impact study—and later the trail’s construction.

Smith’s office is providing advice and technical assistance, but in Virginia the responsibility to acquire, establish, and manage regional trails falls upon localities or other private entities. The W&OD Trail is overseen by NoVA Parks, for example, while the Capital Trail has its own foundation to coordinate its stewardship across the three counties and two independent cities it crosses.

“One of the keys to making this project work will be either a foundation or a friends group to take care of this facility,” said Burnley. “Virginia would really benefit by reconstituting the governor’s 2008 Conference on Greenways, Blueways & Trails to help localities figure out how to do this.”

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of the Southern Tip Bike and Hike Trail. It is in Northampton County.

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Wyatt is a born-and-raised Richmonder with a master’s in urban planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a bachelor’s in international political economy from the American University in Washington, D.C. Most recently he covered transportation as Greater Greater Washington’s Virginia correspondent. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network. Contact him at [email protected]