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Pittsburgh's National Example

Linda McKenna Boxx
President
Allegheny Trail Alliance


Pittsburgh led the world in the production of steel during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and now this same region is setting a national example for rails-to-trails conversions. Cities and towns that grew to serve the production of coal, coke and steel were connected by thousands of miles of railroads. Now, a century later, many of these rail lines have been abandoned, absorbed into road systems or dissolved by disuse back into the landscape; but many have found new life as trails. And these are no simple footpaths through the woods: they are wide, level, smooth and cross rivers and ravines with the help of massive bridges.

Western Pennsylvania has hundreds of miles of rail trails, with some just a few miles long and others extending for dozens of miles. The region's longest trail is the Great Allegheny Passage, now 100 continuous miles, with 17 more currently under construction. Its naturally strategic location and scenic beauty will serve to make the Pittsburgh region a cyclist's paradise. When completed, the Passage will connect Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, where it will join the C&O Canal towpath for a 335-mile motor-free trip from the Steel Capital to our nation's capital.

The Passage tells the stories of our region, from the early colonial days when a young George Washington sought a water route for trade from the eastern seaboard to the interior, to the Forks of the Ohio. It witnessed the evolution of transportation, as rails replaced canals and highways replaced the rail. It saw the growth of a region fueled by the abundance of coal that was muscled and managed by hard-working people. But it also saw the environmental degradation that accompanied the region's economic prosperity and finally saw the demise of many communities who were dependent on the steel industry.

Trail development is having a significant, positive impact on these very same communities. Trails not only provide easy and free recreation, but they become a focus for volunteering, community celebration, and understanding of the area's history. Longer trail systems, like the Passage, have become tourism destinations and add substantially to the local economy. The nearly 400,000 visitors each year to the Great Allegheny Passage put over $7 million annually directly into the communities for incidentals, food, lodging, and equipment.

The trails give focus to community development efforts, as towns along the trail structure their economic redevelopment efforts around the trail tourists. New businesses such as bed and breakfast lodgings, bike shops, casual restaurants, and specialty shops are cropping up in these trail towns. Towns like West Newton, Meyersdale and Confluence are seeing new businesses open that cater to the influx of visitors arriving by bicycle.

Trail development is often followed by local efforts aimed at improving environmental quality through river restoration, mine drainage, coal waste and illegal dump clean-up projects, habitat improvements, and protection of scenic view sheds. Trails offer access to the rivers that the industrial use often denied. Trail visitors develop an appreciation of the interplay between the built and the natural landscape.

There remain some challenges to completing the Great Allegheny Passage, which is a component of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail. The 15-mile home stretch into Pittsburgh has no easily available corridor, so it leaves the builders with the task of negotiating with each property owner, one by one. Many are brownfield sites with costly remediation issues. There are obstacles, such as live railroads and highways that must be safely crossed. With a partnership that involves eager volunteer trail builders and other non-profit organizations, coupled with committed leadership in Allegheny County government, good progress is being made, and this final connection should be completed in four or five years. Long-term sustainability of this trail system depends on fulfilling the promise of creating community assets that attract tourists and their dollars and adding to the quality of life in the region.

By making small changes to the physical landscape, trails are helping to spark the transformation in what people do and in the way the region is perceived. Year by year, Western Pennsylvania is becoming a great place to live and visit because of the many outdoor recreation opportunities, and hosting the longest rail-trail in the East adds to this value. This trail system is clearly becoming an important source of activity and pride for the region.


Linda McKenna Boxx is the president of the Allegheny Trail Alliance, a coalition of seven trail-building organizations in southwestern Pennsylvania and western Maryland whose purpose is to assure the construction, maintenance and use of a multi-purpose trail between Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. She can be reached atamail@atatrail.org.

 

 

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