For the last several years, a group of public, private and nonprofit organizations located in Rockingham and Shenandoah counties has been exploring possible uses for an abandoned railroad track in the valley. With help from Del. Tony Wilt and Sen. Emmett Hanger, a new recreational opportunity could be on the horizon.
Wilt, R-Broadway, introduced a budget amendment during this year’s General Assembly special session calling for the Department of Conservation and Recreation to assess the feasibility of developing a 38.5-mile linear park along the rail corridor that spans from Broadway to Strasburg.
The rail trail would connect 10 communities, three Civil War battlefields and various schools and businesses, according to the Shenandoah Rail Trail Partnership.
During an interview with the Daily News-Record on Thursday, Wilt said he was approached by some people who had been looking at the rail corridor for a while to sponsor a budget amendment.
“I thought it was a great idea,” he said.
The amendment had no cost associated with it and would only add language to DCR’s existing natural resources budget.
Wilt said DCR told him the feasibility study could be worked into its budget at no additional cost, leaving the Broadway delegate to believe the amendment would be agreed to by the House of Delegates with ease.
“There would be no money right off the bat, not tax money involved right upfront, and it could be approved for grants [in the future],” Wilt said. “And that’s what gets me. It failed in the House, but fortunately Sen. Hanger kept it alive in the Senate.”
Hanger, R-Mount Solon, said Thursday that he was a “real fan” of converting the abandoned rail corridor into a trail and advocated for the budget amendment during the conference committee meeting, where he was the only Republican.
“It was something I jumped on right away,” he said. “I worked on stuff like that across the state.”
Some of the projects Hanger has been involved with include the Creeper Trail in Southwest Virginia and High Bridge Trail State Park in Farmville, as well as the Capital Trail in Richmond.
Hanger said he is in favor of rail-to-trail projects because they lend themselves to new recreational opportunities that bring interest to bicyclists and hikers.
“When it’s complete, it’s a great asset to bring in to the area,” he said. “I think it has a lot of potential and I am hoping those [interest] groups out there who support it keeping doing that. There is a lot of interest in those outdoor activities and I am excited about the possibilities that will come with it.”
Wilt said the rail trail would also bring in additional revenue to areas the trail passes through, including Broadway.
“We have these [rail trails] in other parts of the state, and it’s been a real economic boon from this for them,” he said.
Wilt said those who visit the trail would eat at local restaurants, book accommodations locally and get gas at local stations.
The Shenandoah Rail Trail Partnership commissioned a study to predict how localities along the rail corridor would benefit financially from a mixed-use trial, according to its website. While the study is being conducted, the partnership pointed out that the High Ridge Trail in Farmville was predicted to have an initial economic impact between $1 million to $2 million when it opened in 2012. A 2018 study by the Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business found the trail had an impact of $6.5 million.
If the valley rail trail were to be constructed, Wilt said he hoped it would deter bicyclists from using Va. 259 in Broadway.
“This gives an alternative place to enjoy recreation,” he said.
Broadway Town Manager Kyle O’Brien said he is excited about the prospect of the rail trail, adding that if it came to fruition, it would have a “very substantial economic impact on Broadway, as well as the Shenandoah Valley in general.”
“Broadway being the southern terminus of the trail would be huge, as it would be the spot where many people would begin or end their hike or bike, and we feel they would spread out in town to the restaurants and businesses,” he said. “The potential for new recreational businesses would also be great. It really has unlimited potential for the town from an economic development standpoint.”