by Curtis Tate W.Va. Public Broadcasting Oct 22, 2022
Thousands of miles of railroad once snaked up the hollows and river valleys of West Virginia, carrying coal and passengers. Some of the state’s rail lines still serve that purpose.
Others serve a new one: Building West Virginia’s tourism economy.
West Virginia has more than 500 miles of rail trails, and the state is poised to get increased funding from recent federal legislation to build more. State officials promote such trails as drivers of economic development in places that need it. But there are challenges getting the funding to cities and counties so they can make their rail trails connect to others.
West Virginia has nationally recognized rail trails. They include the North Bend Rail Trail, which covers 72 miles from Parkersburg to just west of Clarksburg.
And the Greenbrier River Trail, which runs 77 miles along its namesake waterway. Both are state parks, managed by the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources.
A third, the 72-mile Elk River Trail, is under construction. It will be the newest state park.
West Virginia’s rail trails are set to receive even more funding through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of last year — a 70% increase.
That could mean more communities will get the chance to become “trail towns,” hubs of trail-related tourism in West Virginia and surrounding states.
“So, yeah, we’re really excited to potentially be a trail town in the future,” said Carly Jones, an assistant planner in Fairmont.
Fairmont is working to acquire additional railroad property to expand its rail trail system.
Eventually, it could be a part of a 230-mile trail from Parkersburg all the way to Pittsburgh. Most of the trail will be in West Virginia. There’s only about a 20-mile gap left to make it a reality.
Kelly Pack, director of trail development for the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a national advocacy organization, said the influx of federal funds will help close those gaps.
“These are the communities that are really well positioned to utilize this once in a generation infusion of federal dollars through the bipartisan infrastructure law,” Pack said.
But there are challenges unlocking those federal dollars. Unlike other states, West Virginia does not have dedicated funding for the acquisition, development and maintenance of rail trails.
The West Virginia Division of Highways administers the federal funding. Kent Spellman, a rail trail consultant and founder of the North Bend Rail Trail, calls the process “cumbersome” and “dysfunctional.”
“We need to work at the policy level to clean up those programs so that they’re more accessible to communities,” he said.
Spellman said some projects have been in limbo for as long as several years from the time of the award to the notice to proceed.
“That’s a ridiculous amount of time for a grant to just be sitting on the shelf not being used,” he said. “So the increase in funding is important. But even more important, is the state deciding that they want to use that efficiently and effectively.”
A new group, called WV TRAIL — which stands for Trail and Recreation Advocacy and Information Link — aims to change that.
The group was formed in 2020 and held a virtual conference last year that included mayors and Tourism Secretary Chelsea Ruby. This year’s conference will be in person next week at the Glade Springs Resort in Beckley.
“It’s about building a network of trail advocates, users and managers, and making that network very apparent to decision makers in West Virginia,” Spellman said.
The bipartisan infrastructure law, which President Joe Biden signed last November, means West Virginia will get $11 million a year for transportation alternatives, which are non-motorized modes such as hiking and biking trails. That’s a big increase from the current $6 million, Pack said.
“That means a lot, especially for the types of projects that we’re talking about,” she said.
The new funding can help West Virginia close those remaining gaps in its rail-trail system. So can other programs, such as the Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization Program.
A $1.5 million AMLER grant, from the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement, will enable the state to purchase 23 miles of abandoned Baltimore & Ohio Railroad right-of-way in Clay County. It will close a big gap in the winding Elk River Trail.
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, Ruby and Gov. Jim Justice kicked off the trail’s construction in 2019.
“This project is a transformational opportunity for every community through which this trail will pass,” Hanshaw said then.
Progress has moved relatively fast. The trail is now open from Hartland to Gassaway, in addition to a short section in Clendenin. Another 18 miles of trail will be built along Buffalo Creek. Trail advocates hope it can one day extend all the way into Charleston.
State officials consider such projects vital to the economic future of communities hurt by the loss of coal jobs and disasters, such as the catastrophic flood of 2016.
Other federal programs are helping support rail-trail development in West Virginia.
A $1.1 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission helped create the Mountaineer Trail Network Recreation Authority. It’s a version of the successful Hatfield-McCoy Trail system in southern West Virginia, without the ATVs.
Sixteen counties are part of the network, and it projects an increase of one million visitors to the region in 10 years, and with them, hundreds of jobs.
Spellman said the authority recently hired an executive director.
“So it also will be connecting communities with funding opportunities for the development of amenities, business development opportunities,” he said, “because trails without amenities are not going to be a good experience for trail users.”
Like other tourism infrastructure, rail trails need good signage, parking and restrooms.
They also need to connect to other communities or recreational assets, Spellman said.
“A trail to nowhere from nowhere is not of great value,” he said, “but a trail that connects a community to another community, or that connects through that community, to the businesses that are in that community, or connects that rail trail to the mountain bike trail, or the water trail, or the equestrian trail.”
Spellman said West Virginia’s rail trails could be promoted as part of a package with other recreational opportunities and amenities.
“And we just have to keep up the momentum and keep providing communities, counties, and trail groups with the resources they need to be successful,” he said.