Penn­syl­va­nia, for turn­ing old rails into new trails

By Ni­raj Chok­shi

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Ni­raj Chok­shi re­ports for GovBeat, The Post’s state and lo­cal pol­icy blog. If you have a can­di­date for best state, e-mail ni­raj.chok­shi@wash­post.com.

For more than 20 years, hik­ers have struck out on June’s first Satur­day to con­firm what Amer­ica’s most fa­mous nat­u­ral­ist, John Muir, noted more than a cen­tury ago: “Wild­ness is a ne­ces­sity.” The oc­ca­sion, Na­tional Trails Day, cel­e­brates the na­tion’s more than 230,000 miles of trails. It’s a net­work that con­tin­ues to ex­pand, thanks to a decades­long ef­fort to con­vert aban­doned rail tracks into walk­a­ble green spa­ces.

New York City’s High Line— a roughly 1.5-mile el­e­vated path cut­ting through west­ern Man­hat­tan — might be the high­est-pro­file ex­am­ple of a rails-to-trails project. But no state has done more to put old track to good use than Penn­syl­va­nia.

“A lot of the trails in Penn­syl­va­nia are world-class trails,” says Katie Har­ris, spokes­woman for the Rails-to-Trails Con­ser­vancy, a D.C.-based non­profit ded­i­cated to track­ing and pro­mot­ing th­ese projects na­tion­ally.

Not only has Penn­syl­va­nia com­pleted the most rails-to-trails projects — 170, fol­lowed by Michi­gan’s 118 — but it also has more projects un­der­way than any other state, ac­cord­ing to con­ser­vancy data. The Keystone State has also con­verted more miles of track than all but three other states. Michi­gan has the most, with 2,365 miles of con­verted trails, fol­lowed by Min­nesota and Wis­con­sin. Penn­syl­va­nia has turned 1,740 miles of track into trails.

The idea was born in the mid-1960s in the Mid­west. Cor­ri­dors carved through cities, forests and moun­tains lay un­used by the con­sol­i­dat­ing rail­road in­dus­try, so the tracks were re­moved, and “peo­ple just nat­u­rally started walk­ing,” the con­ser­vancy says on­line.

Projects have now been im­ple­mented in all 50 states and D.C., with more than 22,000 miles of track con­verted so far. Hun­dreds of projects un­der­way would add 8,000 miles to that count.

The con­ser­vancy is in­volved in one such ef­fort, dubbed “the Cir­cuit,” which would cre­ate a 750-mile net­work of trails in the Philadel­phia re­gion.

“We’re do­ing work all across the coun­try, but the Cir­cuit’s prob­a­bly the most rel­e­vant ex­am­ple,” Har­ris says.

The project couldn’t ex­ist with­out the co­or­di­na­tion and vi­sion of lo­cal of­fi­cials, ad­vo­cates, non­prof­its and gov­ern­ments. And the fact that more than 300 miles are al­ready com­plete is a tes­ta­ment to the ded­i­ca­tion that makes Penn­syl­va­nia this week’s best state.

BAS SLAB­BERS FOR NEWSWORKS/ISTOCK

Philadel­phia City Coun­cil­man Curtis Jones speaks dur­ing the ground­break­ing last Oc­to­ber for a pedes­trian and cy­clist path across theManayunk Bridge, a for­mer rail right-of-way. Penn­syl­va­nia has com­pleted 170 rail­sto-trails projects, the most of any state.

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