BY CAROL VAUGHN, Eastern Shore Post —
Eastern Shore residents from Chincoteague to lower Northampton County flocked to a public hearing about the Eastern Shore Rail Trail at Eastern Shore Community College.
The purpose of Monday’s open house-style hearing was to seek public input — what one highway department official described as a simple yes or no from residents — on whether a 46-mile pedestrian and bicycle trail along the railroad right-of-way between Cape Charles and Hallwood should be included in the Virginia Department of Transportation’s six-year improvement program, at an estimated cost of $44 million to $59 million.
A map on display showed proposed trailheads at Cape Charles, Machipongo, Nassawadox, Painter, Onley, Parksley, and Hallwood.
“It’s just, do you think this is a good idea,” said VDOT Project Manager Jerry Pauley. He said all comments, oral and written, and results of an online survey will be reviewed and compiled.
Several of the 35-plus members of the Chincoteague Cycle Club attended the hearing dressed in distinctive red, white, and blue club jackets.
Cycle club member Rick Willis came prepared, with a written statement, saying the shared-use path will “‘improve pedestrian and cyclist mobility, accessibility, and safety by providing a separated, dedicated facility to those more vulnerable users of the state’s transportation infrastructure.”
“We are also acutely aware that our narrow, back-county, shoulderless roads can be dangerous to the health and safety of cyclists,” the statement read.
Willis called the prospect of a trail “a dream come true.”
Ron Wolff, Eastern Shore Rail Trail Foundation chairman and Accomack County supervisor, said the hearing was “just to get an idea of what people are expecting when the trail goes through and it’s built.”
“We’ve had citizen input all along — it has been very positive — and we would like to continue,” Wolff said.
The nonprofit foundation was organized to “engage in the development, improvement, financing, use, operation, promotion, marketing, maintenance, and good repair of the Eastern Shore Trail,” according to its mission statement.
Wolff said $25 million in federal funding has been applied for and the project also is “in the queue” for state funding of $8.5 million.
“The biggest thing we see out of this is safety” — giving pedestrians and bicyclists a safe place to travel versus along the highway, he said.
Additionally, Wolff said the trail will boost economic development, “particularly for the small, historic railroad towns. We’ve seen over and over again in other trails that we looked at that you get start-up businesses along the trail — whether it be bike shops, bike repair shops, movies, restaurants, small shops. So it would be a good source or means of economic revitalization for the towns.”
Having a trail also “fosters a healthy community” by providing a safe place to walk, run, or bicycle, he said.
Spencer Murray, senior vice president of Canonie Atlantic — the company that owns the railroad — and former Northampton County supervisor, said he hopes the project will be included in VDOT’s six-year plan.
“We’re not talking about Accomack or Northampton taxes, and I think that’s worth pointing out,” he said.
Murray noted the value of preserving the railroad right of way.
“Yes, it’s a trail and it’s going to help a lot. The towns are very excited about it. But it’s maintaining this corridor for broadband, for sewer … and there’s possibly a future of natural gas,” he said.
Additionally, Murray said, “if there is ever a rejuvenation of rail, passenger or freight,” keeping the corridor is advantageous.
Murray said people also need to know “the railroad has not gone away,” noting Canonie Atlantic has long-term leases “with two of the best shortlines,” one using railroad property in Little Creek and another using the tracks from Pocomoke City to Hallwood.
“We get revenue from both of those,” he said, adding, “I think if people really understand what we’re doing, they would be in favor of it.”
Still, not everyone at the hearing was in favor of the trail.
“This money could be spent in so many other ways that would benefit the people of the Eastern Shore,” said Matt Hickman, a Horntown farmer.
“There’s no way that this trail will ever generate enough tourism business on the Eastern Shore to justify the cost of it,” Hickman said, adding, “There’s got to be a more cost-effective way of maintaining the (railroad) right of way than spending over a million dollars a mile for a bike trail.”
He also is concerned about the impact on adjacent agricultural properties.
With trail users potentially walking through nearby agricultural fields, it “could cause a hazardous situation,” Hickman said.
How to pay for the trail
Four Smart Scale applications for portions of the trail have been submitted to VDOT by the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, according to a newsletter from the Eastern Shore Rail Trail Work Group.
Projects selected for funding will be voted into VDOT’s Six-Year Improvement Plan in June.
Additionally, the A-NPDC with VDOT assistance submitted an application for $25 million in federal funding to the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity program, which if awarded would pay for a trail segment between Nassawadox and Onley, according to the newsletter.
U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner also are in the process of accepting applications for local projects to be paid for through congressionally directed spending, formerly called earmarks.
The A-NPDC is working with the Eastern Shore Rail Trail Foundation and the Accomack Northampton Transportation District Commission to submit an application to the senators to pay for a 1.5-mile segment of the trail through Parksley.
Another segment was one of three community projects on the Shore selected to receive federal funding this year.
Former Rep. Elaine Luria in January presented a check to the Accomack Northampton Transportation District Commission for $2.5 million to pay for a trail segment in Cape Charles.
The federally funded project includes engineering, survey, and design in addition to construction of about 2.3 miles of a 10-foot wide multiuse trail, a trailhead near “The Hump” overpass in Cape Charles, and a new park and ride lot on Route 13 across from Stone Road.
Traffic signal modification and three intersection improvements are included in the project.
The start date for construction has not yet been determined.
— Submit comments online at https://metroquestsurvey.com/ar7g7l; or email comments to [email protected] with the subject heading “Eastern Shore Rail To Trail Project Public Comments.”
— Written comments also may be mailed to Jerry Pauley, at 7511 Burbage Drive, Suffolk, VA 23435.