More Than Meets The Eye

By Ron Headrick and Jamie Falise

A long, flat, abandoned stretch of land and a community asking for recreational trails seems like a match made in heaven, right? Well, maybe. The prospect of converting a former rail line into a recreational trail—known as a “rail trail”—sounds simple enough and, in many cases, is a terrific solution to a community need. However, when federal or state funding is involved, these trails can have more challenges than meet the eye, especially with the legal processes, negotiations, research, and other snags that can arise. Before launching into what seems like a straightforward rail-trail effort, consider the following common—but often unanticipated—headaches that can occur once a project is underway.

1. The funding “catch.” A number of state and federal programs provide funding for rail-trail projects, which is a tremendous asset for cash-strapped communities. However, these programs often come with a number of stipulations. Most notably, the municipality is typically required to pay for the design, permitting, and right-of-way components of the trail. In and of itself, basic design isn’t tremendously expensive, but often the conditions of the funding process require several more steps and phases of design, much of which are not factored into initial cost estimates. For instance, the funding agency may require costly redesigns of portions of the project, as well as a slew of permits and easements, which entail lawyers and legal processes, historic record searches, documentation production, etc. With these extra steps, it’s generally accepted that the design phase can cost up to 20 to 30 percent of the construction costs. Communities and designers should be aware of that ratio at the beginning of the process so budget constraints don’t end up limiting progress.

Also, in some cases, the “bucket” from which the funding is taken dictates the design elements that may be covered by the funding. A rail trail being built as part of a streetscape or economic development effort, for example, may include funding for benches. But a trail being funded for traffic-congestion relief probably will not, leaving the municipality on the hook for these types of expenses.

The takeaway? Simply acquiring former rail land doesn’t mean a community is ready to proceed. Before raising the money to buy land, organizers need to be as informed and clear up front about the possible costs and effort of building a trail with federal aid versus a simpler funding model that may produce a less-polished product.

2. A patchwork quilt of owners. Depending on the orientation of the rail line, a rail-trail project may involve negotiations with a LOT of land owners. In some cases, the town can buy the land outright; in others, moving forward means obtaining leases and easements from dozens of individual land owners. In 2011, the city of Newburyport, Mass., embarked on a two-phase effort to create its Clipper City Rail Trail, which spans approximately 2.5 miles through the downtown and along the Merrimack River. For Phase 1, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority owned nearly all of the land, making negotiation somewhat simple since there was only one entity to deal with, although it took several years to finalize. When it came to Phase 2, however, much of the land had been sold to an electric utility, while other parcels were sold to private landowners in pieces here and there throughout the project footprint. That meant the city and its trail designers had to work with each land owner, the funding agencies, and all of their lawyers to document ownership and obtain easements.

In fact, the legal process required obtaining temporary easements from property owners if those working on the trail took as much as one step on their land. And for a city like Newburyport that’s over 350 years old, records aren’t always clear on who owns what or the infrastructure on site (e.g., drainage). Clarifying and documenting those details meant hiring surveyors to literally walk the land and lay out all boundaries, which added costs to the project.

3. Access for all. In theory, rail trails are a nice amenity for all members of a community since the terrain is very flat. However, because the trails are often on old or abandoned land, they can include sections in disrepair, bridges that have been removed, or other impediments to some users. Again, funding agencies will frequently have ADA requirements, depending on whether the trail fits into the definition of a public right-of-way. These requirements may range from adding clear spaces next to benches so wheelchairs can park next to them to creating accessible footpaths from neighborhoods along the path.

But even if these measures aren’t required, the goal of most public trails is to make them as accommodating as possible for all members of the community. So designers should identify requirements specific to that corridor early in the process and work with officials to provide whatever access is reasonable and within the project’s budget.

4. Road crossings. While trail intersections with roadways used to be a major issue, now with the growing number of trails in many communities, drivers and trail users are much more accustomed to the measures and warnings in place to keep everyone safe. That said, taking those safety precautions is often not as simple as installing a stop sign or flashing yellow light. In many communities, stop signs or traffic signals for motor vehicles can only be installed on the road if the trail corridor meets a certain minimum of users, which can be hard to predict before a trail is built. Getting approval for that sort of variance might entail a vote from the city council or other legal processes that, again, add time and money to a project.

The right solution all depends on the circumstances of the intersection. One option beginning to appear in more urban areas is a sensor-based light that blinks only when a rider or walker is approaching the intersection, rather than steadily flashing, which drivers often ignore over time. As with all technology, however, this option can have some challenges with maintenance and reliable functionality. Another alternative is a raised crosswalk, which essentially keeps the trail at a consistent grade as it crosses the road but forces vehicles to slow down over the elevated table. This option, too, depends on traffic volume and the angle of the crossing.

5. The NIMBY crowd. Similarly, confronting “not in my backyard” opponents is less contentious than it was in years past due to the increasing number of successful rail trails operating all over the country. Education has helped; myriad studies have been conducted over the last 30 years that indicate trails’ benefits to a community, from public health to property values.

For example, a 2011 study by the University of Cincinnati found that for every foot closer a house is to a trail, the house’s value goes up by $9.[1] A 2011 assessment of three rail trails in Central Florida indicated that the trails have had an economic impact of $42 million annually on the local economy.[2] Research on 372 trails across the country by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy also found that only 3 percent of the trails studied experienced any type of major crime.[3] With frequent communication—whether at public meetings, on a project website, or in other communications—trail organizers can often allay community concerns fairly early on and even turn some opponents into trail advocates. However, there will always be those abutters who are trail opponents because of concerns about change, crowds, or noise.

Challenges like these, as well as others that accompany any development project, from drainage issues and environmental permitting to contamination surprises given the former industrial uses of rail-trail sites, will undoubtedly arise. These snags are easily recognized, however, and issues on which any trained trail designer and town planning staff should be well-versed. But manned with the tips and forewarnings about the potential headaches outlined above, communities embarking on a rail-trail effort can avoid, or at least better manage, some of the pitfalls that may arise.

Ron Headrick ( is a landscape architect based in Massachusetts. Jamie Falise (, also a landscape architect, is based in the Boston office of Stantec.