One Group’s Massive Dream: A Bike Trail Between Coasts

After much research, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy says that a bike and walking trail that extends across the country is possible—and it’s ready to put in the hard work to bring it to life.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a group that works to preserve unused rail corridors by converting them to trails, has a long track record of helping to revamp underutilized public resources. But RTC is thinking bigger than ever with its latest endeavor.

The group, which has been actively creating trailways out of railways for more than three decades, has recently made the case for something called the Great American Rail-Trail, a single bike trail that reaches from Washington state to Washington, DC. RTC says the existing groundwork of rail-to-trail initiatives, particularly 12 gateway trails that lead along its desired route, makes this initiative possible.

“The possibility of a rail-trail that spans the country has been known for decades as RTC tracked rail-trails being developed east to west along the same course charted by the railroad a century ago,” the group states on its website. “Now, the route is more than 50 percent complete—the milestone RTC has long identified as the threshold for committing to make this trail a reality.”

The initiative would fulfill a dream of  RTC Cofounder David Burwell, who helped foster a long-running initiative that led to more than 23,000 miles of rail-trails nationwide—and another 8,000 miles that’s well-positioned to be converted in the future.

“My dream is that one day you could go across this entire country—old or young, handicapped or able—on flat, wide, off-road paths,” Burwell reportedly said, according to his obituary published in The Washington Post in 2017. “I want rail-trails to be America’s main street.”

While the preferred route hasn’t been announced as of yet (that’s coming in May), the buzz about the big idea is rising. Speaking to Route Fifty, Kevin Mills, the nonprofit’s senior vice president of policy, said that the call to announce came as a result of long-running analysis by the organization.

“We’re confident that this is something we can do,” Mills told the outlet. “It will take some effort over a period of years to bring it together of course.”

If the initiative can be completed, it could represent one of the boldest examples of a public resource around—an easy walking and bike trail, more than 4,000 miles in length, that is within 50 miles of more than 50 million people, cutting through big cities and small towns alike.

“RTC is ready to lead the effort to connect the trail across communities, counties, and state lines to create a seamless off-road biking and walking journey for the country,” RTC President Keith Laughlin said in a news release back in January.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Washington, D.C., one of the 12 gateway trails on the proposed Great American Rail-Trail. (krblokhin/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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