Story and photos by Calvin Pynn, contributor
A plan to convert a 50-mile railroad corridor – stretching across the northern Valley from Broadway to Front Royal – has been in development for the past five years but could become a reality with the infrastructure bill currently being negotiated in the Senate.
That’s the path forward that Senator Tim Kaine sees as the most ideal for the tentatively named Shenandoah Valley Rail Trail. Kaine stopped in Broadway last Thursday, May 6, on a tour through the area to learn more about the project, and what he can do to help.
After visiting JMU earlier that day, Kaine traveled north to meet with local elected officials and representatives of various organizations – most of whom have joined to form the Shenandoah Valley Rail Trail Exploratory Partnership – at Broadway’s Heritage Park. While they were near the potential location of the southern trailhead, Kaine walked with the group to the section of track running parallel to downtown that could also become part of the trail.
“We’re working on an infrastructure bill that I believe will have – as allowable uses – projects of this kind. I think it’s going to happen and hopefully we can work together to make it happen sooner rather than later,” Kaine said.
While the Senate is debating how to best allocate funds for the infrastructure plan proposed by President Joe Biden, Kaine said rail-to-trail projects could fit in that plan – and that the timing would be ideal as the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s not always that we’re putting dollars on the table for infrastructure, and we’re doing it at a time when we’re just coming out of COVID, a health crisis. And people are spending more time outside and getting out on bikes and looking to rebuild a tourism industry that was hit pretty hard,” Kaine said.
The single-track rail corridor – originally known as the Manassas Gap Railroad – pre-dates the Civil War. While it once served as a major freight artery across the northern Shenandoah Valley, its use declined, and the line between Broadway and Front Royal was completely abandoned in 2020. Now, advocates hope to transform the corridor into a multipurpose biking and walking trail.
Similar trails have replaced abandoned rail lines elsewhere in Virginia. And Kaine is no stranger to the process, having been involved with several of them during his terms as Richmond’s mayor and, subsequently, Virginia’s Governor
An avid cyclist, he’s also ridden several of those trails around the state, including the New River Trail in Southwest Virginia, the Creeper Trail, running from Abington to White Top, and the W&OD (Washington & Old Dominion) Trail in Purcellville.
“These things really work. They bring communities together; they create good health opportunities and good economic opportunities,” Kaine said.
A group of local governments and nonprofits from along the proposed route Valley joined to form the Shenandoah Valley Rail Trail Exploratory Partnership for that very reason. Several members showed up in Broadway to meet with Kaine, along with local elected officials.
The rail-to-trail project has garnered bipartisan support for the opportunity to rejuvenate tourism in the Valley and, potentially, local economies. Rockingham County Supervisor Dewey Ritchie, who represents Broadway, has advocated for the trail, and Board of Supervisors passed a resolution supporting it last month.
“To me, the biggest thing is to connect us more with the people in Northern Virginia and the interaction that we could have with them. They could come out and enjoy what we enjoy every day,” Ritchie said.
The 50-mile stretch of railroad between Broadway and Front Royal could connect the two towns, and several communities in between. However, Katie Wofford – Executive Director for the Alliance of the Shenandoah Valley – said it could connect the region even beyond the north trailhead in Front Royal.
“With Front Royal as a terminus, we’re then connecting to Skyline Drive, the Appalachian Trail, Shenandoah National Park, so I think tying together these extraordinary public lands could be an incredible opportunity,” said Wofford.
Kim Woodwell, the Alliance’s program director and coordinator for Shenandoah County, added that it could also provide some workers with a new commuting option.
“Just north of us are two processing facilities that are located on the rail corridor. And many of their employees don’t have access to vehicles so they have to rely on carpooling or walking on busy roads without sidewalks to get to work, and this rail trail could be a shortcut for them to easily walk to work and easily get to shopping in town,” Woodwell said.
Don Hindman, a retired emergency physician from Woodstock, presented the trail’s map to Kaine, and explained how it could promote better public health.
“Healthcare is a birthright, but health itself is not a noun, it’s a verb. We were meant to move. And many of our families and neighbors and citizens are sedentary. I want to get them moving, and I want to connect them,” Hindman said.
The group met at Broadway’s Heritage Park, near the potential spot for the south trailhead, and later walked to the track section running parallel to downtown that could also become part of the trail.
A feasibility study for the rail trail was authorized last year by the Virginia General Assembly, and a survey to gauge community interest will be available to the public this summer. The results for both are expected by this fall.
Although many pieces have fallen into place, the biggest hurdle still to overcome is the fact that the railroad corridor is still owned by Norfolk Southern. While the line is not being used now, the company is hesitant to let it go, several of the partnership’s members told Kaine.
While Kaine suggested advocating for the rail-to-trail project in discussions over the infrastructure bill, they asked the Senator to appeal to Norfolk Southern.
“We need to acquire the corridor, and whether that is a tax benefit for Norfolk Southern, honestly we want it to be a win-win. Right now, there is no economic incentive for the corridor because there are no factories along it, and no vision of future use of this trail right now for many years,” Hindman said.
Kaine said a call to Norfolk Southern would be on his agenda in the near future. With no current use for the corridor, he believes the company could be persuaded.
“Once they have decided that this not in their long-term strategic interest, then that opens the door to make this happen. If that’s the case, then it’s just a matter of negotiation and price timing,” Kaine said.
Norfolk Southern did not respond to The Citizen’s request for comment.
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