By Jacob Fenston posted May 8th, 2019 on wamu.org
A bridge on the Pennsylvania Panhandle Trail, which would be part of the new cross-country route.
Picture it: A car-free route across the country.
It’s been a dream since the 1980s, when the nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy was founded. And for decades it was just that — a dream.
Now, the group says, there has been enough progress in terms of trail construction that a cross-country route is actually viable. The group announced the planned route at a press conference in front of the U.S. Capitol — mile zero for the new cross-country trail.
From the Capitol, the 3,743.9 mile route would wind its way across 12 states, ending at the Pacific Ocean, west of Puget Sound. D.C.’s 7.5 mile portion of the route would travel along the National Mall, the Potomac and then follow the C&O Canal into Western Maryland. D.C. and Maryland are the only two jurisdictions where the route is already 100% complete, using trails that have been in operation for years.
Currently, about half of the route follows already completed trails. The group spent about a year looking at different route options, using its database of abandoned rail lines and 34,000 miles of current trails. The group also analyzed more than 300 state and local bike plans to see where trails are already planned or in the works. Some parts of the country were more challenging than others.
“You do have to get over the Rocky Mountains at some point,” says Kevin Mills, vice president of policy for the conservancy. “But the railroads had to face the same challenge.” The chosen route crosses the Rockies in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Those states have some of the largest gaps in the existing trail network.
In Wyoming, the route is only 1.6% complete, with 500 miles that need to be built. In Montana, there are 344 unbuilt miles. Mills says officials in all 12 states (plus D.C.) are supportive of the plan. In Wyoming, for example, the Great American Rail-Trail is already part of the state’s trail plan. Mills says one of the reasons states are excited about the plan is its potential to spur tourism and economic growth. He points to a 2014 study that found a 24-mile-long trail in Pennsylvania had an economic impact of more than $8 million that year, with more than 600,000 users.
Of course, plenty of people already bike across the country every year, and there are several established road-based routes. Eric Brenner, of Silver Spring, made the trip in 1987.
“It was just me and my wife and a bunch of maps and a tent,” he says. “There still is a world for that. You don’t want everybody on the trails,” Brenner says. He welcomes a new trail option, and says it will make the trip possible for many more riders.
Trails can be crowded and restrictive (and boring, for some riders!), but they have clear advantages.
“One very straightforward advantage is that it’ll be safe,” says Ryan Chao, president of the conservancy. “One can bike and walk and be separated from vehicular traffic.” Another advantage of the new cross-country trail — it will be rideable for more people. “Most of the route will be on rail-trails, which are inherently quite gentle — no more than 3% grade, based on how a train would have traveled through,” Chao explains.
The completed trail is likely decades off, but it could be partially rideable much sooner. “I won’t be surprised that people right off the bat are going to be saying, ‘How do I use as much of it as possible in the cross-country trip I’m planning to do tomorrow?’” says Mills.
He says there’s no price tag on the project yet, but funding will likely come from a combination of public investment from the federal government, state and local governments, as well as private funds.
It could be just the beginning. Dennis Markatos-Soriano is executive director of the East Coast Greenway Alliance. The greenway is a vision for a north-south trail route running from Canada to Key West, Florida. The route crosses the Great American Rail-Trail in D.C. Martkatos-Soriano says dozens of people already ride the route each year. It’s currently about 35% trail, with the rest following roads.
Mills compares the announcement of the Great American Rail-Trail route with the ground-breaking for one of the first highways in the United States — Route 66, which was established in 1926.
“This is going to be an iconic American landmark,” he says.
Who knows — in a few decades, there could be a bicycle analog to the U.S. interstate highway system, with interconnecting trail routes crisscrossing the country.
“We’re trying to change the way people move in America,” says Markatos-Soriano.