Rail trail picks up momentum, funding; meeting in Cheriton on Wednesday, May 8


BY CLARA VAUGHN, Eastern Shore Post —

A new hiking and bicycling trail is coming to the Eastern Shore, with construction between Cheriton and Cape Charles expected to begin next year.

The Eastern Shore of Virginia Rail Trail is a planned path following the 49-mile railroad corridor that once carried trains between Cape Charles and Hallwood. A May 8 public meeting in Cheriton will detail how construction in Northampton County will begin.

Trains stopped running along the corridor several years ago, opening the door for the new project.

“We see the rail trail as a way to rejuvenate the small towns,” said Ron Wolff, executive director of the Eastern Shore Rail Trail Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to developing the trail.

“Tourism is already a big thing on the Eastern Shore, but we can make it even better,” he said.

Almost half of the path is funded, thanks to an influx of federal and state dollars.

That includes $2.5 million in federal and Virginia Department of Transportation funds, which will construct a path from downtown Cape Charles to Cheriton.

Another 17-mile stretch of the trail between Birdsnest and Onley is also underway, thanks to a $23.5 million Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity grant the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission secured.

Follows railway footprint

The trail follows the footprint of the former railroad that ran along the spine of the peninsula, connecting Pocomoke City with Cape Charles.

Completed in 1883, the railroad contributed to rapid growth on the Eastern Shore and its trackside towns by carrying freight and passengers north and to mainland Virginia by barge.

However, as freight declined and the tracks deteriorated, the railroad became less viable in recent years, Wolff said.

In 2020, Canonie Atlantic, the company that owns the train tracks, petitioned the federal Surface Transportation Board to decommission the 49.1 miles of the railroad between Hallwood and Cape Charles. Canonie Atlantic, a private company, is owned by a local public commission.

The move triggered a series of procedures known as railbanking — the process used to transform former railroads into walking and bicycling trails.

Railbanking preserves the corridor in case trains return in the future, Wolff said, and allows the land to be used as a trail in the meantime.

Groups such as the national Rails to Trails Conservancy cite a host of benefits that trails can bring to nearby towns, from attracting visitors and boosting spending at local businesses to providing residents with new opportunities for outdoor recreation.

“Businesses begin to thrive along the corridor, and with all of the towns, we see that as a means of revitalization and economic growth,” Wolff said.

“The other thing that’s of huge importance is the safety factor: Getting people off … (Route) 13 and onto a safe network with no motorized vehicles,” he said.

“It will provide a safe means of not only transportation, but exercise and wellness,” Wolff added.

Not all residents welcomed the trail, including farmers who expressed concerns about trail users trespassing on adjacent farmland.

Wolff said that group is represented by Northampton County Farm Bureau President Steve Sturgis, a member of the Eastern Shore Rail Trail Foundation’s board of directors.

Construction next year

Residents can expect construction on the trail in Cape Charles, from Rayfield’s Pharmacy to the Food Lion shopping center, to begin in 2025, Wolff said.

That segment will continue along South Bayside Road into Cheriton, where it will eventually join the longer, 49-mile Eastern Shore of Virginia Rail Trail.

There will be a public meeting on that portion of the trail Wednesday, May 8, at 5 p.m. at the Cheriton Volunteer Fire Company.

A second section of the trail between Birdsnest and Onley is also underway. Wolff estimated engineering design could take a year, and construction could begin as soon as 2025 on that segment.

It will include four trailheads, each with restrooms, parking spaces, and bike racks, as well as bus shelters for riders to connect to STAR Transits’ public buses, Wolff said.

“We’re looking at the trail being a means of transportation — a transportation network,” he said. “It connects all of the old historic railroad towns along the corridor.”

Accomack and Northampton counties are pursuing other state grants to build the remaining portions of the path, Wolff said.

— Visit www.esrailtrail.com to learn more about the Eastern Shore of Virginia Rail Trail.

— For more information on the May 8 public meeting on the Cape Charles \and Cheriton portion of the project, see https://tinyurl.com/4rz7pmzn

— The public hearing will be from 5-7 p.m. at the Cheriton Volunteer Fire Company, 21334 South Bayside Road, in Cheriton.

— Readers can submit comments on the Cape Charles-Cheriton trail during the meeting, or mail them to Kenneth McKinna, Project Manager, Virginia Department of Transportation, 7511 Burbage Drive, Suffolk, VA 23434.

— Submit comments by email to [email protected] referencing “Eastern Shore Rail to Trail Project Comment” in the subject line.

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