Contributing columnist Anthony Cherolis is bicycling across North America and will be sending us occasional updates on what he’s seeing in other states and cities in terms of better transportation infrastructure and policy. You can follow his journey on Instagram.
One unassuming paragraph in Connecticut’s 2022 legislation will have a big impact on the state’s bike routes and multi-use trails. In the short 2022 legislative session, House Bill 5255, proposed by Connecticut’s Department of Transportation (CT DOT), was passed and signed into law. Four lines of text give the state more options to close gaps in urban and regional multi-use trails. The “Rail with Trail” language gives the CT DOT the choice to unhitch railroad companies from undue liability so cities and towns can pursue unused rail corridor width as parallel multiuse trails. The design of the multi-use trails would include fences and gates when necessary to prevent unsafe use of the still active rail bed.
Many of these corridors are only used for infrequent freight rail, which is not an issue for public safety due to slow speeds. These freight rail lines already pass through neighborhoods with minimal fencing and security, including at grade street crossings. The Connecticut law was based on examples in other states and had been pursued by active transportation and rail trail advocates for over a decade.
While traveling cross country on my wandering bicycle tour, I have seen many instances of Rail with Trail in Maine, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. The first photo below is between Cleveland and Akron, next to a rail corridor that was (pre-pandemic) used by the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad and affectionately known as the Bike Train. The second photo from Ohio is the Camp Chase Trail in a town center next to a lightly used freight rail line, likely used for seasonal shipping of agricultural goods. Both of those are part of the Ohio-to-Erie cross-state trail that links Cleveland (Northeast Ohio) all the way to Cincinnati (Southwest Ohio).
Years ago on another bike tour, I was surprised at how the Great Allegheny Passage Trail in Pennsylvania used rail corridors, some quite active, to close gaps in and beyond geographically constrained Pittsburgh with its steep hills and rivers. Experiencing that innovative connectivity on such a popular cross state/cross region trail inspired me to better understand why Connecticut did not yet have Rail with Trail, especially around cities like Hartford, Middletown, and New Haven. I learned from Bruce Donald, Northeast Coordinator for the East Coast Greenway Alliance, that trial lawyer lobbyists had stymied efforts to incorporate Rail with Trail liability language into a Connecticut law. The folks at the East Coast Greenway Alliance and Bike Walk Connecticut are excited that CT DOT put the language this year into the 2022 omnibus transportation bill.
In Connecticut, there are already Rail with Trail opportunities being discussed, most of them in early concept stages. Here are a few of them.
The Jonah Center is proposing a Rail with Trail connection between Downtown Middletown and Cromwell’s riverfront park along an infrequently used but active freight rail corridor that has a gravel access road for much of its length. This connection would provide opportunities for bike commuting as well as healthy recreation for Middletown, Portland, and Cromwell residents. The complaints of vehicle congestion on Route 9 would be alleviated somewhat by giving more folks in those communities a walking, biking, and e-scooter connection that is convenient, enjoyable, and safe.
A wide and underused freight rail corridor starting near Hartford’s Union Station runs through low car ownership, dense residential neighborhoods on the way to Bloomfield. The corridor (and potential greenway) goes right past the University of Hartford campus and Weaver High School. Including a multi-use trail along the Griffin Line rail corridor was proposed and is moving forward for additional planning and design consideration in the Greater Hartford Mobility Study. That multiuse trail would be a critical connector of Hartford and the region’s safe bike route network, which I previously highlighted as having too many gaps.
In New Haven, there is a construction project underway to connect the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail to Orange Street near the downtown commuter rail station. Chris Ozyck, Associate Director of the New Haven Urban Resources Initiative, has been sharing an innovative idea to continue that greenway along the Amtrak service drive, connecting to State Street Station and beyond. According to Doug Hausladen, Executive Director of the New Haven Parking Authority, the Union Station Partnership that manages both the State Street Station and Union Station, along with other city & state entities, are thinking a lot about how passengers interact with and get to the train stations on city and state right of way, potentially including rail corridor right of way. This extension of the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail makes a lot of sense considering the significant apartment housing construction, economic growth, and transit-oriented development in that area.
These are just a few of the Rail with Trail opportunities that cities, towns, and CT DOT can consider now that the frustrating rail operator liability hurdle has been addressed. With myriad benefits of connected bike routes and multiuse trails, from climate emissions reduction to public health and safety benefits, we should be celebrating this additional tool for active transportation and greenway design.
How to learn more and get involved:
- Follow the Bike Walk Middletown social media page and ask to get onto their email list, and join the Jonah Center email list
- Comment on multimodal transportation concepts and get onto the email announcement list for the Greater Hartford Mobility Study and ask Caitlin Palmer at CRCOG to include you on public announcements for the upcoming Greenway Gaps Study. Join the Transport Hartford Academy e-newsletter list.
- Engage with the New Haven Coalition for Active Transportation and the Safe Streets Coalition of New Haven, or connect with the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail organization.
Attend the monthly virtual CT DOT Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board Meeting and ask about how CT DOT is considering Rail with Trail opportunities to close stubborn multiuse trail gaps.