NEW MARKET — Rather than replacing an unused single-track railroad corridor in Shenandoah County with a multi-use recreational trail, members of the Shenandoah Rail Corridor Coalition support retaining and reviving the track and building a recreational trail next to it.
“We’re very, very interested in preserving for all time that corridor as a resource for our county, and for it to be a resource at the optimum level we need to be able to use it in a multi-use way, including rail,” said coalition member Keven Walker, CEO of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation.
As proposed, the 48.5-mile Shenandoah Rail Trail would run along an inactive railroad corridor, currently owned by Norfolk Southern Corp. The trail would run from Broadway in Rockingham County to Front Royal in Warren County and pass through or near the Shenandoah County towns of Timberville, New Market, Mount Jackson, Edinburg, Woodstock, Toms Brook and Strasburg while providing bicycle, pedestrian and equestrian access to scenic landscapes and Civil War battlefield sites.
But the Shenandoah Rail Corridor Coalition has another vision for the project.
At the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation's office on Friday, Walker was joined by fellow Shenandoah Rail Corridor Coalition members Bill Holztman, owner and president of Mount Jackson-based Holtzman Corp., and Mark Dotson, a Shenandoah County planning commissioner, to discuss the coalition’s rails-with-trails vision.
“For the future, if we want to have industry in the valley we’re going to have to have rail,” said Holtzman, who added he would use the potentially revived rail lines for his business interests.
The coalition’s overall vision includes running short-line freight trains and maybe a tourist excursion train on the now-unused lines while bicyclists and other recreational enthusiasts could enjoy an adjacent trail.
That scenario would boost the Shenandoah Valley’s economic future far better than a proposal that entails a recreational trail without a revived railroad, coalition members said. They claim their proposal would decrease semi-truck traffic on Interstate 81, too.
“Rail and trail can co-exist,” Walker said. “It’s being done as we speak in places all over the country,” such as in York County, Pennsylvania, and Cumberland, Maryland. “These are places where the communities have embraced the fact that rail is going to be a major part of our future and that outdoor recreation is important to communities. They have found ways for those two things to co-exist together, and we strongly believe that that can be a model that’s applied here in the county.”
Meanwhile, the Shenandoah Rail Trail Exploratory Partnership — made up of towns, counties, planning district commissions and several nonprofits, including the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley — is hosting a series of public meetings this spring, including one on Thursday in New Market, about the potential rail to trail project. Kim Woodwell, the Alliance’s program director and Shenandoah County coordinator, recently said the organization is working with the Arlington-based Conservation Fund on acquiring right of way for the trail.
Members of the Shenandoah Rail Corridor Coalition plan to attend at least some of the meetings to raise awareness about the rails with trails concept.
“If the rails are removed, the trains will never come back,” Walker said on Friday.
The last freight trains to use the inactive stretch of railroad traveled north to Strasburg in 2007, south from Mount Jackson in 2014 and to Front Royal in 2020.
Currently, “You have a private railroad from Winchester north, and you have a private railroad from Harrisonburg south,” Holtzman said. “What we need to do is have this (48.5-mile stretch) be a private railroad. If we don’t have some industry here in the valley, then all the taxes are paid by land taxes and eventually people won’t be able to afford it. Farmers would have to pay higher taxes. We have to have industry in the valley to help carry the tax load."
Holtzman said the potentially revived rail line would benefit various existing industries, possibly including his propane business, as well as the Valley Fertilizer and Chemical Co., which he has a business interest in.
Walker said many local residents often think industry is in opposition to the area’s agricultural community.
“That’s not the case at all,” Walker said. “If you have light industry supporting the tax base, then farmers can continue to farm because they can make enough money with their commodities that they’re selling to support their farming operation and their taxes. If taxes skyrocket, then they’re going to start doing the math and will decide to build homes on their property instead of raising cattle because they can’t afford the taxes. You have to have light industry to have a vibrant future and a vibrant community.”
According to the Shenandoah Rail Corridor Coalition — citing estimates from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, the state Department of Transportation and a consulting firm — the total cost of restoring the 48.5-mile segment of railroad would be about $61 million, while the total cost of removing the track and replacing it with a trail would be about $95 million.
Neither estimate includes the cost of purchasing the railroad corridor, which could range from $15 million to $25 million, according to one public finance economist’s projection.
The state’s current two-year budget sets aside about $90 million for multi-use trails. Some of that funding reportedly is allocated for the purchase of the unused railroad corridor for the possible trail-without-rail project.
But the rail should remain in place, Holtzman said.
“If you have the railroad with the trail beside it, you could have that right of way for everybody,” he said. “It would also be a potential right of way for municipal water and sewer for the county and be a way to run conduits for the (high-speed internet) cables.”
Holtzman also said a revived railroad could allow for a scenic rail service between Strasburg and Broadway or Harrisonburg.
“You would bring three times more people into this valley for a scenic railroad than what a trail would bring,” Holtzman said.
Dotson, who serves on the Shenandoah County Planning Commission, noted that the Virginia Scenic Railroad in Staunton has been very successful and recently added a second line.
“They regularly sell out their bookings when they post them online,” Dotson said. “We have that as a model: We have twice the line, twice the scenery and twice the history.”
He said the section of unused rail line in Shenandoah County includes “key terrain” that’s envisioned in the county’s comprehensive plan for long-term growth while preserving farmland and scenic views.
The line runs through property containing industrial parks and vacant areas rezoned for industrial uses, as well as by towns with large workforces, Dotson said.
“The county is prioritizing sites right at the interstate (81) interchanges for industrial development,” he said. “By preserving this rail line and taking advantage of land already zoned industrial, that would take some of that volume of freight off the interstate and allow us to grow businesses where we don’t shove more freight on an already very busy, congested interstate.”
Overall, the Shenandoah Rail Corridor Coalition is looking to maintain the possibility of rail service in Shenandoah Valley for the long term.
The up to $60 million or more investment in restoring the unused, almost 50-mile-long segment of rail line “would last for decades and decades and decades,” Walker said. “Our county routinely invests in its future” by annually putting tens of millions into its school district. “There is no reason why we should not be maintaining this rail and keeping it ready and available for service, even if that doesn’t mean we’re not hauling freight tomorrow.”
Holtzman indicated that while some state legislators have publicly supported the rails-to-trails proposal for Shenandoah County, others have privately backed the rails-with-trails idea.
“I think the rails-to-trails people, all they want is to tear up the rails and make a bicycle trail,” Holtzman said. “That’s going to bring a very low return, if any,” on investment. “It’ll never pay for itself. If you maintain the railroad long-term, it’ll be a huge asset and it will pay big dividends. I am a big proponent of saving the railroad so that everyone can benefit, not just the bicycle riders.”
Holtzman said that he, like many other business operators, would be a “customer” of the potential revived railroad.
“I just see it as such a value to the valley,” Holtzman said of the possibly revived rail line. “I think it would be a travesty to tear it up.”
Walker said the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation is a huge creator of recreational trails and that the corridor coalition seeks economic balance and cooperation.
“What our group has been proposing isn’t rail-over-trail,” Walker said of the coalition. “We have said you can have rail and trail. We are just as big a proponent of the trail, but to put the trail in at the expense of rail is the wrong thing to do, and we should really be questioning the motives of any public official who would support that, because any public official who would support tearing up those rails does not have the vision for this county that we need for leadership.”
The next in a series of Shenandoah Rail Trail Exploratory Partnership-hosted meetings about the proposed Shenandoah Valley Rail Trail project is set for 6:30 p.m Thursday at the New Market Community Center, 9184 John Sevier Road.
To learn more about the meetings, visit shenandoahalliance.org.
For more information on the Shenandoah Rail Corridor Coalition, visit www.shenandoahrailcorridor.org.
This is Holtzman trying to killi any competition for his gas stations. Don't be fooled. The rail line is defunct. Bring in something to improve our community!
This is a dream of one person. Not to mention, I know the public will be so thrilled to be stopping at railroad crossings more often, cannot wait. Oh, and remind me again how many great eating establishments Shenandoah County has again? Right....
Railroad revival fantasies are blooming along with the early tree buds and flowers in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.
I haven’t read about a stagecoach and horse and buggy preservation movement arising when gasoline engine commercial and personal vehicles came, enthusiastically, into common use around 1910-1920.
Norfolk Southern terminated freight service in Shenandoah County in November of 2007.
Scheduled passenger service on that line ended around 1950.
A December 6, 2022 article in “Cardinal News” included:
“The Virginia Inland Port opened near Front Royal more than 30 years ago and commerce has followed, as manufacturers and distributors have sought inland access to one of the largest ports on the East Coast: the deep-water harbor at Norfolk, with its steady stream of ocean-going cargo ships.
“Trains carry cargo the 220 miles between the coast and the inland port, allowing customers to build warehousing and production facilities on less expensive land and reduce their reliance on trucks, while at the same time easing congestion at the busy Hampton Roads marine port.”
Just a few minutes of thought yields a realization that an upstart, nostalgic project for using an abandoned single-track railroad line, which has how many potential freight customers, and momentous competition for revenue-generation in the Front Royal to Manassas freight traffic to and from the Inland Port, should cease being a distraction from the careful planning, and energetic momentum, of the Rail to Trail Partnership.
It is strongly hypocritical for Keven Walker, the CEO of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, a long-time member of the Shenandoah Rail Trail Exploratory Partnership, to be a leading spokesperson for the Shenandoah Rail Corridor Coalition.
It would be a very different, and persuasive, matter if the likes of AMTRAK, Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, and Norfolk Southern were among the rail revival advocates.
Having an active railroad has been studied and it isn't economically feasible. Continuing to bring it up is counterproductive. Do you really think there's enough revenue opportunity to support a railroad? Show us the numbers. The Shenandoah Rail Trail Exploratory Group (I'm not a member) has done a fabulous job putting together a realistic plan that has tremendous community support and will bring enormous value and quality of life benefits to the Valley. They've done their homework. If you really want a train, then let's see your homework.
If folks want to use the existing rails for local businesses, they should buy them from Norfolk Southern. Otherwise, there's a plan in place to effectively utilize them to bring value to an otherwise abandoned and dilapidated corridor that currently serves no function and is an eyesore.
Holtzman suddenly wants a working rail line to benefit his own businesses. Why didn't HE get working on his plan 15 years ago?
In a related NVD story, Broadway Town manager Kyle O'Brien "addressed ideas including having rails with trails.
“There’s a little bit of chatter now about a train,” he said. “And we all love trains and trains would be great. Would we love to have a train go from Broadway to Front Royal to Washington D.C., ... absolutely. That’d be awesome, whether it’s passenger, whether it’s whatever.
“It can’t work. Period. It cannot work, unless you want to spend another 50, 60 million dollars. I mean, that’s just the way it works. So, from that standpoint, you know, we’d love to see a train, we understand there’s some folks that are talking about trains, if you kind of do a deeper dive into that it can’t work,” he continued."
In theory, this sounds like a viable option. However, it isn't. Trashing infrastructure that is overgrown and currently useless didn't become an issue until this idea, which exists in other locations in VA and is very successful, came about. If you are a railroad hobbyist and your concerns are over big money to support your business, perhaps you should fund it. I'm wondering if anyone has thought about the safety aspect of having both. I wouldn't take my child to a trail that has a moving train beside it. The railroad industry was a part of our past. Most likely that is where it will stay. The studies have shown that this recreational trail is more about quality of life. Most residents don't care about return on investments and big oil/propane.
As our population increases, electric passenger rail would reduce emissions and congestion on the valley's routes. A revitalized rail corridor also creates accessible transloading potentials alleviating agricultural, manufacturing and industrial truck traffic on congested routes. A single railcar can transport up to three truckloads of product -- think about that the next time you are stuck on I-81!
So perhaps when considering when the conundrum of rails to trails there is another option that would benefit all — the environment, our local economy, and the health and welfare of those who call the valley home. I would urge you to consider the “rails with trails” option as a viable alternative to removing the existing rails.
The railroad industry was instrumental in the development of the Shenandoah Valley. Its legacy is deeply embedded in our proud history, and it should not only be preserved but also revitalized to serve the needs of future generations who call our valley home. For me, when considering what is the best option to serve our citizens “rails with trails” is the only answer!
This compromise is the ONLY option that the Shenandoah Alliance should be considering. Trails are great, but trashing infrastructure worth untold millions is just wasteful. I have been saying this for years, the Alliance needs to take a hard look at freight, passenger, and tourist rail viability, it seems to me like it just needs the right operator. Holtzman and Walker are right, once the rails are gone they'll never come back! We must do both, we must SAVE THE RAILS!
The NVD should be commended for presenting a fair and balanced approach to this complex issue which will have a major impact on the future of the Valley. Well done !
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