Committee appointed to examine possible new trail program

Woodstock Mayor Jeremy McCleary has appointed a committee to examine the possibility of bringing a Rails to Trails program to the area.

Rails to Trails, a conservation initiative that works to convert defunct railroad infrastructure into walking and cycling trails, seems well-suited for the Woodstock area, McCleary said.

“The majority of the rails that run from Strasburg to New Market in Shenandoah County have not been used for many years,” McCleary stated in an email. “That stretch is roughly 34 miles long. So, that stretch, running the length of Shenandoah County, and running through all six towns in the county is currently not used for rail purposes.”

McCleary stated it only makes sense to try to utilize the space, given its vacancy.

“I feel that a much better use of that property would be as a hiking/biking/running trail,” he stated. “There would be many benefits to such a trail including increased tourism, the possibility of businesses popping up along the trail, and the quality of life benefits that would come from county residents hiking/biking/running from town to town.”

McCleary said that the local response from the recent Bike Virginia tour worked to confirm the benefits he is anticipating.

“Woodstock just hosted a huge Bike Virginia event this past weekend,” he stated. “Many business owners in town have told me that they had a record weekend. Those bikers had to ride on our streets alongside cars. Just imagine the impact on tourism if bikers could enjoy a beautiful ride through our county on any weekend along a trail system running from Strasburg to New Market.”

McCleary’s committee, assigned to explore the possibilities of the trails’ institution, consists of Don Hindman, Kara Jeffrey, Cully MacDonald, Dale Carlson, Justin Barnes, Joe Lehnen, Katie Mercer, Councilwoman Paje Cross, Town Planner Aaron Pattie, Lemuel Hancock, Becky Lambert, Gale Shaffer and McCleary. The members, said McCleary, are a combination of citizens, town government personnel, cyclists, runners and members of the Forestry Department.

“Under my authority as mayor to appoint special committees, I’m appointing a committee to address the Rails to Trails issue to see if it’s feasible, see what our options are and just explore this project so we can know whether or not this is something we can move forward on,” McCleary said at June Town Council meeting. “I hope the town of Woodstock is leading this charge but I hope we’re not the only ones. I hope this will be something that will be adopted throughout the county.”

Kelly Pack, director of trail development with Rails to Trails Conservancy, explained the mission behind the work done by her organization.

“Our mission is to create healthier places for healthier people through creating a national network of trails that connect communities and the trails along former active railroad corridors or other types of connecting corridors,” she said. “We do that through a three-pronged approach. We have a policy team that focuses on increasing investment in trails and we provide resources to those that want to do trails and we do trail promotion through trailink.com.”

Rails to Trails Conservancy, which has helped establish more than 22,000 miles of trails in all 50 states, works in tandem with localities to determine the feasibility of trail institution.

“It’s up to the community whether or not they want to go forward,” Pack said. “The community is doing it and we’re providing whatever resource they need. We have lots of initiatives and resources that help those communities understand how they can best encourage usage of the trails and things they can do in their town to boost economic development.”

Pack said that a large part of what the organization does is analysis of the economic impact as a result of trails, one area of focus for McCleary and his committee.

“We work with some communities to work with economic impact studies,” she said. “We have a big research initiative that’s going to provide tools to trail planners, like forecasting trail use and to look at things like healthcare savings cost diverted because of trails. For the longer distance trails you’re going to see more of an economic impact because they have really become tourist destinations.”

McCleary said he has not yet determined the frequency with which the exploratory committee will meet, but said he hopes it will be often.

Contact staff writer Nathan Budryk at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or nbudryk@nvdaily.com