Infrastructure bill under debate in Congress could hold key to funding Valley rail trail

Sen. Tim Kaine (D) in Broadway at the southern end of a proposed 50-mile rail trail running north to Front Royal, during a May visit. File photo by Calvin Pynn.

By Chase Downey, contributor

As planning continues to develop a nearly 50-mile walking and biking trail following an abandoned rail line from Broadway to Front Royal, the infrastructure bill now being debated in Congress could prove to be key to its future.

The bill would provide funding for trails like that proposed for the Valley by allowing states to allocate funds for maintenance, development, and purchase of land for recreational trails. In May, Sen. Tim Kaine (D) visited Broadway to drum up support for the bill and identified the trail as a potential beneficiary.

The Senate passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill on August 10, and Democratic party leaders in the House of Representatives have vowed to vote on it by the end of September. 

“Obviously when you’ve got a corridor with as many structures and as many bridges as this one, there’s going to be some impressive costs with renovating the line,” said Jennifer Wampler, state trails coordinator for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). “Certainly, finding federal funding to help with that is important.”

The DCR is now conducting a feasibility study of the trail due to the General Assembly by November 1. The agency also held a virtual webinar in July to discuss the results of a public survey about the trail.

Although a funding source to purchase the trail corridor from Norfolk Southern has yet to be identified, Rockingham County Administrator Stephen King told The Citizen that several counties are helping to fund an appraisal. Rockingham County contributed $15,000 to that effort, King said.

Even if the current version of the infrastructure bill would become law, it remains unclear how much money could be allocated to the Shenandoah Valley Rail Trail. Katie Stuntz, communications director for Sen. Kaine, said that that decision would fall to the state.

“The across-the-board historic increases for transportation programs in this bill, paired with the added flexibility for States, should benefit the various trail projects across the Commonwealth,” Stuntz said, in an email.

For nearby trail, it was a slow go

In Alleghany County, it’s taken 20 years to rehabilitate the Jackson River Trail. In 2001, the county paid $900,000 to acquire a 14-mile rail line that had been abandoned for more than 30 years. Rehabilitating it cost an additional $5 million in the two decades since – all funded by various state grants, plus another $2 million for a final 1.6-mile stretch extending into Bath County.

Chad Williams, director of Alleghany County Parks and Recreation, said the trail’s 20-year rehabilitation process was due in part because of the length of time that the corridor had been unused, leading to issues such as neighboring properties slowly bleeding into the corridor, overgrown grass and weeds, and even significant portions of the railroad’s ballast being scavenged and used illegally by a local contractor.

The rail corridor for the proposed trail in the Valley was used until much more recently, with the earliest portion abandoned in 2007 and parts in use through 2020.

“It’s been a process,” Williams said. “Hopefully [the Shenandoah Valley Rail Trail] doesn’t take the 20 years it’s taken us … but if they’ve got the General Assembly involved… they may be able to move forward a lot faster than we were able to.”

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