With the Obama Administration’s announcement of $8 billion for high-speed rail projects across America, I wondered if any of that money might help bolster our country’s trail network.
The Rails to Trails Conservancy seemed like a natural place to start, but it turns out that the development of new high-speed rail corridors involves a different set of players than the conversion of old railroad lines into bike trails (which is RTC’s specialty).
I was eventually referred to Champe Burnley, President of the Virginia Bicycle Federation. Mr. Burnley, as it turns out, has been on something of a crusade for the last year to get bike trails alongside new rail corridors and he thinks new high-speed rail corridors would be “ideal” for this purpose.
To illustrate his enthusiasm, Burnley sent me this nice before/after from a presentation he’s been giving;
Burnley says “We’ve been pushing hard on the railroads,” but he was quick to add that railroad operators don’t want bikes anywhere near their lines. With high-speed rail — where trains could go over 100 mph — this fears of liability and safety (sincere or not) are certain to impact the discussion.
What we’re going to do is hand this money over to private railroad companies… That’s 8 billion of our money and we deserve benefits of access so we can use these corridors.”
— Champe Burnley, president of Virginia Bike Federation
“The typical argument is that it’s too dangerous to have rail trail, but data just doesn’t support that.” Burnley maintains that having a trail alongside a rail line actually improves safety. He cites a study of rails-with-trail projects that shows reduced trespassing, dumping and vandalism in addition to improved safety because trails tend to “channelize users to safe crossings.”
Burnley also made an interesting point that I hadn’t considered. “What we’re going to do is hand this money over to private railroad companies… That’s 8 billion of our money and we deserve benefits of access so we can use these corridors.”
How does Burnley propose trail advocates get access to these new corridors? He says he’s already spoken with congressional offices about an idea to set aside 2-3% of the new transportation bill to build trails alongside federally-funded rail corridors.
“I’m not sure if we can get the ties in this by the time the transportation bill comes out — but we need to create the mindset.”
Burnley added that since Obama’s announcement, “I’ve gotten all sorts of emails from people who are finally realizing what’s going on.” At VABike.org, Burnley has posted a Rails with Trails Petition that has already been signed by a long list of regional and national bike advocacy groups.
I plan to meet Mr. Burnley at the National Bike Summit coming up in March. I’ll keep you posted on any developments.