Trails for Rails?

The time is ripe to use some of the Economic Recovery Act monies for conversion of trails back to their original mass transit use.

I walk every day on a trail that is the former right of way of the New York, Westchester & Boston railroad. The rail line, which ran for a quarter of a century between 1912 and 1937 from The Bronx to White Plains in Westchester County, was unusual for its time in having been designed exclusively for high-capacity passenger service. As Roger Arcara notes in his book â''Westchesterâ''s Forgotten Railway,â'' â''it was the first American railway of main-line form which was designed and built as an electric line right from the ground up, rather than being an electrification of an existing steam-powered road.â'' The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Company, which claimed to have spent $50 million on this â''costly little charge,â'' which never showed a net profit according to Arcara, fell victim to depression economics and was forced to reorganize in 1935 under the National Bankruptcy Act. Subsequent efforts to save the line were unsuccessful.

The original investors in the line had anticipated that it would kickstart a spurt of population growth in Westchester that did not materialize fast enough to keep the line in business. But today's densely populated county just north of New York City would be well served by the line were it still in operation. Remarkably, the line stopped at four stations across a distance of only about 2 miles in White Plains and would now be accessible to the car-dependent suburban southern portion of the city. Seventy years after the New York, Westchester & Boston ceased operations, White Plains--the county seat and a 35 minute train ride from Grand Central Station-- has no dedicated intracity public transportation and only one railroad station on the Harlem line of Metro North. That station is located in a part of the city that is not in walking distance of the majority of the cityâ''s suburban neighborhoods. The wait for a parking permit at the train station is years long.

One reads a lot about the rails for trails movement in the United States. But what are the precedents for conversion of trails back to rails? As it turns out, the Federal governmentâ''s popular Rails to Trails program, which originated in 1983 with amendments to the National Trails System Act, was never just about creating opportunities for biking and hiking. It directed what is now the Surface Transportation Board to â''railbank,â'' at the request of an existing railroad owner, the corridors of inactive rail lines for interim use as recreational trails. The idea was that these rights of way would be held in the public trust in anticipation of the day when they would revert to their original railroad use or to accommodate some other future mode of mass transportation. Over 190 railway corridors stretching 4000 miles have been railbanked under the program in 30 states.

Only a few conversions of trails back to rails have occurred in recent years. A listing hosted on the American Trails website includes a 10-mile stretch in Ohio that was reactivated in 1992; 13 miles in Georgia reactivated in 2003; 52 miles in Idaho in 2003 and a total of 55 miles in Arizona in 2003.

The Economic Recovery Act includes $48 billion for mass transit. The time is ripe for some of it to trickle down to projects to convert more of the railbanked rights of way back to their original use.

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