Happy Trails Pa. looks to big boost from infrastructure bill to build, connect rail trails

‘We need to finish big pieces that cost a lot of money. That’s why the infrastructure bill could not have come at a better time,’ said Elaine Paul Schaefer, executive director of the Schuylkill River Greenway

By: - November 30, 2021 11:27 am

A cyclist rides along a bridge built for pedestrians and bicyclists along the Schuylkill River Trail (Photo courtesy: Meritus Architectural Photography).

The Schuylkill River Trail is a recreational path that begins in Frackville, where generations of coal miners once made their home, and extends 120 miles south to an old fort in Philadelphia used by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.  

It passes through forests, housing developments and urban enclaves with brew pubs, much of it following abandoned railroad lines that hug the Schuylkill River.

At least, that is what the trail is envisioned on paper.  

Forty-five miles remain unfinished, including 23 miles in Berks County and 18 miles in Schuylkill County.

Now, supporters are hoping that the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Joe Biden signed into law on Nov. 15, will provide the funds to move the project to the finish line.  

“We need to finish big pieces that cost a lot of money. That’s why the infrastructure bill could not have come at a better time,” said Elaine Paul Schaefer, executive director of the Schuylkill River Greenway, which helps oversee and coordinate trail projects.

Under the bill, funding for the long-standing Transportation Alternatives Program, which includes rail trails, would rise nearly 70 percent  to $1.44 billion a year, according to the Rails to Trails Conservancy.

Pennsylvania would see its share of alternative transportation money rise by $45 million annually to $71 million, said Mary Ellen Koontz, manager of trail resources for the conservancy.

“That’s a significant amount of money,” Koontz  told the Capital-Star, cautioning that the money is for all forms of alternative transportation, not just rail trails. 

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What makes the funding boost even better is that Pennsylvania, unlike other states, doesn’t require local matching dollars to qualify for funding, she said. Thus, it’s easier to build projects in economically stressed areas.

In addition to the alternative funds, the infrastructure bill establishes a new Active Transportation Infrastructure Investment Program that will be funded at $200 million a year.

The competitive grants program targets regional projects that aim to connect existing walking and biking trails, Patrick Wojahn, the conservancy’s government relations director, said. Wojahn said connectivity is a top priority for rail trail projects.

Pennsylvania already has 194 rail trails covering 2,136 miles. He explained that there are only so many abandoned railroad lines left for conversion.

Now advocates are trying to finish gaps in trails as well as connect multiple systems to one another so people can more easily walk or bike — known as active transportation — from destination to another, whether it be for pleasure or for work.

Such connections include erecting special bridges for pedestrians and cyclists, building elevated trails and buying property easements to link paths.

Among those efforts is The Circuit, which aims to form a network of trails connecting Philadelphia and nine counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Wojahn said 300 miles have been connected so far with a goal of having 800 miles finished by 2040.

To some, linking hundreds of miles of trails might seem like folly, something only long-distance enthusiasts would gravitate to.

But Wojahn said the pandemic has brought thousands of people to rail trails, many for the first time.

“People were looking for ways to get out and exercise,” Wojahn said.

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Now that they’ve experienced rail trails, he predicts, they’re here to stay. Expanding and connecting trails will give them more places to explore.

James Hamill, director of public relations for the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau, said the additional infrastructure money would do more than give people better access to trails.

It would be a boon to small businesses along the routes.

Hamill has witnessed first-hand the impact the D&L Trail, which courses through parts of the Poconos, has on communities, including the river town of Jim Thorpe in Carbon County.

“You can get on the trail there [Jim Thorpe] and travel along the Lehigh River,” he said. “You can hit up some small shops and breweries. It’s a huge economic driver.”

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Schaefer of the Schuylkill River Greenway agreed. “People come from all over the world to use our trail,” she said.  It’s one of the reasons the trail was ranked third out of 10 this year by USA Today as a best river walk

Among those using rail trails is Chris Carter of Emmaus, Lehigh County.

Over a decade ago, he wanted to find a physical activity that would take him to his retirement and beyond. 

He had an old bike but barely used it because he didn’t feel safe on the Lehigh Valley’s increasingly hectic roads.

Then he decided to try rail trails.

Carter, now 62 and retired from a career in IT, was hooked. Since then, he and his wife Carolyn have built day trips and vacations around Pennsylvania’s trails.

This year alone, they’ve ridden on the D&L, Pine Creek, Great Allegheny Passage and the Allegheny River Trail.

That’s why Carter was pleased to hear that the infrastructure bill will increase funding for projects such as rail trails.

As he sees it, the extra money will provide more opportunities and more variety to trail users such as himself. It will also give communities closer access to trails.

“It’s all good,” Carter said.

Correspondent Katherine Reinhard covers the Lehigh Valley for the Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter, @KMReinhard.

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