This article was reprinted with permission from Virginia Mercury.
Two groups in the Shenandoah Valley are at odds over what to do with an unused railway after the General Assembly pledged $35 million toward its conversion into a rail trail.
The nearly 50-mile rail corridor, which was first established in the 1850s, runs from Front Royal to the town of Broadway in Rockingham County and is currently owned by Norfolk Southern Corporation. As interest declined in freight service, the company began to discontinue sections of the corridor beginning in 1989.
Nearly 30 years later, community organizations and local communities began considering a trail to replace the existing rail line. With permission from Norfolk Southern, Virginia completed a field survey in 2021 and then produced a study on the feasibility of developing a linear park along the corridor.
Last year, the General Assembly appropriated up to $35 million, as part of a $245 million package, to buy land for the rail trail and conduct initial planning and site development. Language in the state budget noted that any land acquisition for the trail “shall not preclude the consideration of options to maintain rail transportation in the corridor.”
Now, a group known as the Shenandoah Rail Corridor Coalition has emerged with an opposing plan: restoring the railroad and constructing a trail alongside it.
Earlier this February, The Northern Virginia Daily reported the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, which is part of the coalition, had negotiated a letter of intent with Norfolk Southern to purchase the rail corridor for $23 million. The goal, said foundation CEO Keven Walker, was to develop a 450-acre linear park around an excursion and freight railway.
“It can be the same beautiful resource that the ‘trails only’ folks are envisioning, but it can have the added benefit of these other economic drivers, which are so important for the Valley,” Walker told the Mercury. He said the coalition has raised over $40,000 for the project and generated significant interest since its announcement.
Don Hindman, project director for the Shenandoah Valley Rail Trail Exploratory Partnership, an 18-member group that supports converting the corridor into a trail, said news of the agreement was like “a punch in the nose.”
As the groups argue about the best use for the corridor, a second feasibility study to look at a “broad variety of potential options,” including a combination of rail and trails, is being pursued by the Virginia Secretary of Transportation.
“We continue to meet with stakeholders, including the Friends of the Shenandoah Trail and the Shenandoah Battlefields Foundation — who share a passion for bringing their visions to the valley,” the office wrote in an email to the Mercury.
Hindman said he was “anxious and I think our partnership is anxious to hear that study for the new feasibility study has commenced.”
A push for a rail trail
Over the last six years, groups including the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley, Civil War Trails and the Virginia Tourism Corporation have joined with local governments like Rockingham, Shenandoah, and Warren counties and a handful of towns to back the idea of converting the existing railway into a multi-use trail.
Kyle Lawrence, executive director for the Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition, said creating a single trail for pedestrians and cyclists is the best use for the corridor.
“If we thought you could bring rail back, we wouldn’t have started this project,” Lawrence said.
He added, “It’s not a question for me whether or not you should or shouldn’t be next to a train; it’s whether it’s the best use of the corridor. So given that as a single-track corridor, it’s very unlikely that you can build an accessible trail.”
Hindman too said there is not enough space for both the existing railway and a new trail, since most of the corridor is approximately 60 to 66 feet wide and is very steep and narrow on both sides.
Supporters of the rail trail say the project would help grow tourism, create new business opportunities and help preserve the existing corridor. A 2021 economic impact analysis prepared by economist Robert Cline for the Shenandoah Rail Trail Exploratory Partnership found the rail trail as envisioned could generate an estimated $32 million when completed.
“The Shenandoah Rail Trail effort has been a fully transparent process, with opportunities for community input at every step, including a feasibility study, a [Virginia Department of Transportation] survey with over 9,000 responses (the most they’ve had for any project), and a series of 10 community input meetings in each of the towns,” the partnership argued in a press release after the battlefields foundation’s announcement. “If that funding is to be reallocated to a different concept, partners believe it is imperative that equal transparency and due-diligence be performed to ensure taxpayers dollars will support the project with the greatest public use and benefit.”
The Shenandoah Rail Corridor Coalition meanwhile has argued a new trail can successfully coexist alongside a revitalized rail track, tapping into a growing embrace of the “rails-with-trails” concept.
Between 2002 and 2018, the number of rails-with-trails projects across the U.S. grew from 65 to 434, according to a March 2020 report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“Well-designed rails-with-trails have the potential to provide safe, accessible infrastructure that encourages and enables people to walk and bike for both transportation and recreation as part of their daily lives,” the report found. However, it cautioned, “rails-with-trails are not appropriate in every situation, and developing one requires a collaborative approach among railroads, trail developers, and communities to address safety, capacity, and liability issues.”
Seeking to preserve the existing rail corridor for freight and potentially passenger use, the coalition is pushing for what it calls “Trails Plus,” a plan that would include a recreational trail that runs parallel to a scenic railroad route and access to parking, shops and amenities. The final result, its backers say, could resemble the Great Allegheny Passage Trail in western Maryland.
Walker said excursion rail, designed for special events, is “booming” in parts of the country, and there are potential rail operators that are anxious to operate along the corridor. He also said with traffic growing on Interstate 81, the use of rail to distribute goods could help ease congestion.
“Our ‘Trails Plus’ plan, we see as being the very best benefit for the people in the Valley, as well as the people of Virginia, because it expands the benefit to a larger segment of Virginia’s population,” Walker said. “You’re gonna have a lot more users of that corridor and a lot more people benefiting from the ‘Trails Plus’ concept than we would with the ‘trails only’ concept.”
On its website, the coalition has said the assumption that the railway isn’t viable since Norfolk Southern hasn’t reactivated it is incorrect.
“The railroad remains unsold,” the group pointed out before noting the public held similar views on the 20-mile Shenandoah Valley Railroad that runs between Staunton and Pleasant Valley in Rockingham, which was considered “unsavable” before its rehabilitation. Today, the line handles approximately 2,100 carloads per year with CSX and Norfolk Southern.
The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District has also argued the trails-only plan would destroy the “historic integrity” of the railroad and “prevent any realistic possibility of using the railroad in the future.”
“Anyone who would support or promote that plan — a plan that calls for the destruction of this historic rail line — is not preservation-minded or does not have the capacity to understand the project and its alternatives,” the group wrote. “Period. That’s it.”
Lawmakers representing the region said they’re weighing the options.
Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, who before redistricting represented the district that contains the corridor and put forward the budget request to study the trail in 2020, said he was tired of seeing “defunct tracks” and “nothing going on.”
“If we can get it out of the railroad’s hands for someone to use and put it back into use, then I think that’s a good idea,” Wilt said.
Del. Chris Runion, R-Rockingham, said while he hasn’t reviewed the coalition’s rail-with-trail proposal, he likes the idea of creating a multimodal corridor that could serve cyclists, tourists interested in visiting the region’s historic battlefields, freight lines and passenger lines stopping at neighboring colleges and universities like James Madison University.
“As a legislator, let’s figure out how to use our resources over periods of time so it can be generational and impactful,” Runion said. “I want to see a collaborative venture. It doesn’t just mean bicycles or trains, it means everything.”
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said he’s been surprised by the latest developments related to the corridor but looks forward to the state’s second study.
“I’ve always maintained that I wanted to see the corridor put to the highest and best use, and if that was purely recreational in nature, then so be it; if it meant we can restore freight rail and perhaps scenic rail, and that was certainly a viable option along with a recreational trail, then certainly that was interesting,” Gilbert said. “I’m just in a posture where I’m just taking everything in.”