Pittsburgh's National Example
Linda McKenna Boxx
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
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 email@example.com.