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Want to Bike Cross-Country? Some Old Rails Could Get You There

One day, a 3,700-mile trail may stretch across the United States, between the bustle of Washington, DC, and wide, quiet lakes of Washington State. It could be a hit for ambitious cyclists and hikers, but it will be built to accommodate horses, people using wheelchairs, and cross-country skiers, too. It might traverse 12 states—Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington, plus the District of Columbia—and more than 125 existing trails. It might be the sort of thing someone takes a few months to complete. Or it could be the setting for a quick afternoon jaunt. Which should be easy enough for a lot of people: As it’s envisioned right now, the Great American Rail Trail should be within 50 miles of 50 million American’s homes.

But that vision is decades away, and so Kevin Belanger is obsessed with local infrastructure plans. Belanger is a trail planner at the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a DC nonprofit whose goal is to transform unused rail corridors into trails, where people can bike or walk or stroll. And for three years, his job has been to figure out exactly where to put the Great American Rail Trail.

This month, RTC introduced that dream trail, one it believes it can pull off in a few decades or so, for tens of millions of dollars or so—much cheaper, the group will remind you, than it would cost to build a new Route 66. In a meticulous, 134-page report it released last week, the group laid out its “preferred route” across the US. (The release was accompanied by parties in places like Chadron, Nebraska’s section of the Cowboy Trail, McDonald, Pennsylvania’s slice of the Panhandle Trail, and Casper, Wyoming’s Casper Rail Trail.)

The good news, if you’re at least into the idea of a cross-country biking trip, is that the route is more than half finished. The bad news is that it’s only 52.4 percent finished.

Getting that far has been a monumental push. Belanger and his colleagues have combed through their database of trails, 34,000 miles in all, to see which might be included as part of a larger cross-country route. They’ve talked to a vast network of local planners, engineers, and advocates, more than 200 people and more than 50 state agencies—multiple agencies in several states. And they’ve gone through pages and pages of more than 300 local planning documents to learn what trail building projects are already in the works. At times, they discovered trails they hadn’t previously known of through Google’s aerial maps. Yes, tedious work. “It was also super fun,” Belanger says.

Before the trail is completed—before someone can ride across the country without ever being forced to cycle on the shoulder of a road—90 trail gaps covering 1,744 miles will need to be filled. Iowa needs 247 miles. Nebraska needs 290. Montana needs 345.

And Wyoming, where outdoor recreation is a major economic driver, needs to build 98.4 percent of its proposed 508-mile contribution to the Great American Trail.

Wyoming bike advocate Tim Young, who heads the alternative transportation group Wyoming Pathways, isn’t fazed. From where he’s standing—or, often, cycling—in Jackson Hole, the Great American Rail Trail is the kind of catalyst even tiny Wyoming towns need to get heavy into bicycles. Small-town government officials he’s spoken to about the vision are excited about it, he says. They’re looking for reasons to build out trails that could also be used by the local community, and they’re also looking for a chance at economic development. “Many want to improve downtowns and make them cool places where you want to stop,” he says. “All you really need are brewpubs and bike trails.”

The proposed route of a cross-country bike trail, with the completed portions in dark green and the uncompleted portions in light green.

Rails to Trails Conservancy

Now that RTC and partners like Wyoming Pathways have a sense for where the trail will go, they start the arguably harder work: figuring out how much the whole thing will cost, and finding a way to pay for it. The first half of the trail, the 52.4 percent, was built slowly, over decades, by combinations of state, federal, local, and philanthropic spending. Those trail builders weren’t necessarily coordinated in their actions, or well-organized.

To make further progress, those same sorts of groups will have to pitch in with money, and local advocacy groups will have to apply political pressure. (As with most transportation projects, much of the funding is handed out on the state level, and RTC expects this trail effort to be no different.) “The scale and scope of this project is unprecedented,” says Kevin Mills, RTC’s senior vice president of policy, “That’s what makes this exciting and scary.”

One big thing will make the next few decades of coordinated trail building easier than the first half: email addresses and phone numbers. “That’s something we can follow up every year with our contacts,” Belanger says. “We already know who the right person to talk to for most of these projects is. Which is awesome.”

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