News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Valley Life

August 5, 2012

Rails to trails practice offers Terre Haute avenues of growth

TERRE HAUTE — If there is one thing Terre Haute is known for, it is trains. Trains are so common, there is a term when people get stuck by them — “railroaded.”

“I can get railroaded by four different tracks on my way to work,” Terre Haute resident Patricia Fenio-Campbell said.

While residents in Vigo County may complain about the trains, there is an upside to be trapped by the tracks. When a rail line is no longer in use, it can be removed, remediated and paved into a trail. Probably the best example is the National Road Heritage Trail which runs from Chamberlain Street to Fourth Street. That trail used to be a rail corridor and now it is one of Patricia’s favorite places to clear her mind and catch up with friends.

“There are a group of friends that I meet with religiously, every Sunday to go on the trail,” Patricia said. “Everybody walks or runs at their own speed. We all start out together, walk a little to get warmed up and some of us take off running and some people just walk the entire time. We all meet back up at the trail head when we are done.”

It’s more than a trail

While the trails are a strip of asphalt they mean so much more to many. The trails weave the entire fabric of the community and bring opportunities for people to get out and exercise and convene with their neighbors.

“The rails-to-trails is a park. It is a linear park. It is unique, in that, a lot of money that could be spent in the community might benefit only a certain group of people,” Patricia said. “What better use of money than to have a system like this where people of all ages and athletic abilities can use it.”

Linear parks can also help improve the health of the community. Patricia prefers them because unlike a park where she might just go and sit, with a linear park she is walking, running or riding her bike.

“Recreational purposes are important for this city, given the sedentary lifestyles that are predominated and the rise of childhood obesity,” Terre Haute City Planner Pat Martin said. “We are highly cognizant that we need more recreational activities and we are very aggressively pursuing those areas in every area we can pursue them.”

Economic benefits

The Rails to Trails Conservancy sees that in this economy, work can be done almost anywhere and that people and businesses are looking for places to move. The places that are doing trail development right, are the types of communities that are thriving these days.

“Cities that are doing well in this economy have put a premium on liveability. When you get down to it, liveability are places where you can walk, bike and be active,” said Eric Oberg, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Midwest regional manager.

“Take for example the section of the trail around Locust Street. That was a former agricultural field and while it produced income for the property owner, the new owner came in and put in a multi-million dollar apartment complex that has brought in significant revenue for the city,” Martin said.

One area of economic interest is the abandoned rail line on First Street from Spruce Street to Farrington Street. Martin says that area could likely be used for streetscape with possible accommodations for bicycle lanes.

“It would give us the opportunity to do landscaping beautification along the First Street corridor where there are very few areas of beauty. This ties into the river, in that it is a separation barrier between the river front and the city/county government complex. If we could have that rail line removed, we could completely re-do that connectivity between downtown Terre Haute and the Riverscape,” Martin said.

Upcoming Rails to Trails

The City of Terre Haute’s next opportunity to develop a rail to trail project is the old Graham Grain Line. Terre Haute’s portion of the project extends from roughly 6 1/2 Street and Helen Avenue down to Davis Avenue. The portion of the proposed trail owned by the city is approximately 0.9 miles. Vigo County is expected to pick up the trail from Davis Avenue and extend it all the way down to Springhill Road. That distance is about 1.5 miles. Together the trail could be about 2.5 miles.

“We are trying to resolve the environmental issues on that site. On the city’s portion we have resolved all of the environmental issues. Vigo County still has some additional environmental investigation they need to complete on the site itself,” Martin said.

Track abandonment

A rail line that does not have trains running on it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is abandoned. If one is curious if a rail line is abandoned and could be turned into a trail, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy recommends to look at the property records at the local county/city tax assessor’s office. The next step would be to find out who owns the line, get a contact person for the line and ask what the plan is for that track. Railroads have to go through abandonment proceedings with the Surface Transportation Board. The rail road company will have to file abandonment with the STB. The STB will then consummate the abandonment proceedings.

One of the services the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy offers is called an Early Warning System. The conservancy has staff in Washington D.C. that monitor STB abandonment filings. The system allows residents to search by zip code to see if any trails have been abandoned in their area.

“If you don’t sign up for the alerts then it is really hard unless you know somebody locally who is somehow involved with the railroads and know there are abandonment proceedings happening,” Oberg said.

The Conservancy says the average time frame to go from a rail to a trail, can range from five to 20 years from concept to asphalt on the ground. They say the timeline is dictated by the strength of the local community.

“It is imperative that you get local decision makers on your side. That is how you can get closer to the five year range and away from the 10 to 20 year range,” Oberg said.

While drivers in Terre Haute can only hope for more tracks to go by the way side, it is a seldom few that will be transformed into paths to connect the community. In the meantime, people like Patricia will have to wait to explore new parts of the Valley on foot.

“If people would just go out there once they would understand what all of us are so excited about,” Patricia said. “It is an experience you would remember and want to repeat.”

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