Transforming Rails to Trails

There are many considerations that a municipality, park service or developer needs to deal with before construction begins to transform obsolete railroad beds into recreation trails, according to Jerry Rachel, Vice President of Rachel Contracting in Minneapolis. His firm recently built two green trails in the Twin Cities area using recycled materials.

The most basic first step, he said, is to secure the right-of-way for the railroad bed itself, which is a job for the attorneys. If rails and ties are still in place, they need to be removed by the railroad company (if it still exists) or a demolition service. The latter could be a part of a construction contract for building the new trail. Aggregate used for the rail bed could possibly be crushed and reused as a base for the new trail, thereby saving thousands of dollars in materials and transportation costs.

Other major steps include:

· A thorough assessment of the old railroad bed, where it goes and the environment. This includes neighborhoods, adjacent businesses, roadways and waterways that cross the trail, bridges and green spaces along the way.

· An initial design concept for the new trail, including intended use of the new facility, a realistic estimated cost of construction, oversight, upkeep and maintenance.

· If needed, conduct hearings with property owners who are adjacent or near the proposed trail. Hearings are often required to get approvals and permits, which can take months. Such was the case with a new, 13-mile trail that Rachel built this year through seven western suburbs of Minneapolis, MN.

· Next, the developer and an engineering firm need to set specific design criteria for the new trail, including whether or not to change all or sections of the existing grade, choosing an aggregate for the base, and deciding on a finished hard surface, such as asphalt.

· As part of the design process, the engineering firm needs to thoroughly check state and local safety regulations for trails, such as signage, center striping, fencing, safety rails and other requirements.

· Other critical design criteria include trail intersections and crossovers at roadways, streams and lakes. This may involve building tunnels under roads, and changing or adding bridges.

· Important amenities, such as parking areas, bike racks, rest area, benches, comfort stations, and waste receptacles, also need to be considered.

After final plans are drawn, RFPs can be sent to qualified construction contractors to submit bids. Proposals should be thoroughly reviewed, including a contractor’s experience in building trails. Upon awarding the contract, construction can begin.