In this week’s episode, host Margaret Walls talks with Peter Harnik, cofounder of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, about grassroots and legislative efforts to repurpose abandoned railroad lines as recreational trails. Harnik discusses why the United States has so many abandoned railroad lines, the process of converting a railroad line into a trail, and the legislation that provides funding for trail projects.
Listen to the Podcast
- Why are there so many abandoned railroad lines in the United States?: “The rail industry was built hodgepodge by a lot of entrepreneurs … There was no plan. The government wasn’t involved at all. There was cutthroat competition. There was a lot of money to be made. People were creating railroad tracks and railroad companies willy-nilly, and a lot of them either merged together or went out of business … They started going defunct, because they couldn’t make money on them … They started abandoning these tracks. At the beginning, nobody was giving them any thought. Gradually, they started thinking that these were valuable corridors to preserve. Many of them have become roads, but we’ve been working to make many of them into trails.” (6:28)
- Many rails-to-trails projects begin at the local level: “People were saying, ‘This is a fantastic idea. This is recycling. We love it. It’s so doable; solving all the earth’s problems is too much for us, but saving a rail trail is something we can bite our teeth into.’ It mushroomed from there. People really love the idea. All of our work was helping local people do what they wanted to do.” (16:10)
- Formerly off-limits funding now supports trail projects: “They opened [the Highway Trust Fund] so that other uses could be made of it … It was still only a fairly small amount of this gigantic amount of money, but by trail standards, it was a lot of money. Finally, instead of just having a good idea, [trail conversions were] a good idea backed by federal money. That federal money went to the states, and then state money was available. It made a huge impact.” (22:15)
Top of the Stack
- From Rails to Trails: The Making of America’s Active Transportation Network by Peter Harnik
- Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
- Stolen Focus by Johann Hari
The Full Transcript
Margaret Walls: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Margaret Walls.
My guest today is Peter Harnik. Peter is the cofounder of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national nonprofit organization that was founded in 1986 and advocates for investment in bike paths and the repurposing of abandoned rail lines for biking and multi-use trails. Peter is also the founder of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land, which is how I originally met Peter. We worked on city-parks issues together.
Today, he’s here to talk with us about his book, which was published in 2021 and is titled, From Rails-to-Trails: The Making of America’s Active Transportation Network. The book is a fascinating history of the movement to turn thousands of miles of abandoned rail lines across the United States into trails for use—primarily for bicyclists, but also for walkers, equestrians, and other recreationists. The book describes the cast of characters that push this movement forward, as well as the key federal laws that enable the movement, and the book also provides a summary of where things stand today. We’re going to talk about all of this with Peter. Stay with us.
Hello, Peter. It’s great to have you here today. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Peter Harnik: Thank you for inviting me, Margaret.
Margaret Walls: Before we dive into the heart of our conversation, we always start our podcast by trying to learn a little bit about our guests and what motivated them to do what they do. There’s a bit of this in your book at the beginning, regarding your childhood, but I want to ask you to tell us a little about how you came to work on these issues related to bicycling, parks, and all of these things.
Peter Harnik: I grew up in New York City, which is both a wonderful and a terrible place to grow up. I think of it as wonderful, but it has a lot of environmental challenges—a lot of which are brought on by automobile traffic. It’s also very easy to live in New York without a car. As a child, I bicycled or took the bus, and I realized that the city would be so much more enjoyable if cars weren’t so dominant. That inculcated my thinking throughout my whole life—to look for places where you can get away from cars and enjoy the parks or the streets the way they were meant to be.
In 1966, Mayor John Lindsay closed Central Park to cars, and that was a revelation for all of us—to experience what it’s like to be in a park without cars. I was always looking for opportunities like that, and they’re super hard to come by. Once cars are in, it’s hard to get rid of them. When we discovered these abandoned railroad lines, we realized that cars had never used these before. They’re just sitting there. The tracks have been taken out in most cases, and they’re fabulous trails to use for biking, walking, skiing, and everything else. I was hooked.
Margaret Walls: I enjoyed you talking about growing up in New York in the early part of the book. I really like this book. It’s great. It was fascinating to learn about the long and winding path—no pun intended—to rail trails. It brought back some memories for me. I’m going to date myself a bit, but I remember learning in the mid-to-late ‘80s about rail trails—I can’t remember which one. I had a brand new Trek bike that I was so proud of, and I was living in California and biking a lot. I thought it was such a great idea. Nowadays, people probably take them for granted a bit. There are so many all around, but I want you to take us back to well before the ‘80s. Where was the first rail trail, and what motivated somebody to do it? Can we trace back to the first one?
Peter Harnik: The very early trails were done without much publicity. The first one that got underway in a higher publicity standpoint was in the Chicago suburbs. It’s called the Illinois Prairie Path. It was launched by a wonderful woman, May Watts, who was a horticulturist at an arboretum. She wrote a charming, moving, wonderful letter to the editor. I love that—that a letter to the editor stimulated this whole movement. She wrote a letter to the editor that grabbed people’s imaginations about how we have this abandoned railroad corridor, and it could be a wonderful place. She was a naturalist, so she was mostly thinking in terms of horticulture and preserving butterflies and things like that. But she also talked about using it—“Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts would walk along it,” she said.
It was motivational. It generated a lot of interest and a lot of enthusiasm, and it was a precursor to the difficult battles to create these trails. While all the people in suburban Chicago were working to try and create this trail over a lot of challenges and objections, the state of Wisconsin swooped in and created another trail, what we call the first rail trail: the Elroy Sparta Trail in rural Wisconsin. This was a completely different dynamic. Hardly anybody lives around there, but it was promoted by local activists. The state came in and said, “Let’s buy this,” and they did. That’s what we treat as the first rail trail. Unlike practically all the “new ideas” in America, which tend to start on the East or West Coast, this one started in the heartland, which is another thing I love. Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota are where the rails-to-trails movement really started.
Margaret Walls: In order to have a rail trail, we have to have an abandoned rail line. Apparently— and I learned this in the book—we have a lot of them in the United States. Tell us about that. Why do we have so many abandoned rail lines?
Peter Harnik: The rail industry was built hodgepodge by a lot of entrepreneurs—similar to what is happening in the computer industry right now. There was no plan. The government wasn’t involved at all. There was cutthroat competition. There was a lot of money to be made. People were creating railroad tracks and railroad companies willy-nilly, and a lot of them either merged together or went out of business. It was an exciting break-things-and-move-fast circumstance. By the year 1916, which was the high point of railroading in this country, there were 254,000 miles of rail track. The interstate highway system today is 42,000 miles, and there were 254,000 miles of railroad track. Gradually, they started going defunct, because they couldn’t make money on them.
One reason that the rails-to-trails movement started in the Midwest is because the abandonment procedure of train tracks also started in the Midwest. They had built so many tracks to serve farmers taking their wagons of food to a track 10 miles away. They had too many tracks. They started abandoning these tracks. At the beginning, nobody was giving them any thought. Gradually, they started thinking that these were valuable corridors to preserve. Many of them have become roads, but we’ve been working to make many of them into trails.
Margaret Walls: You talk about a few key pieces of federal legislation in the book that pushed the movement forward. I’m going to mention two of them and ask you to tell us more about them. One was the 1976 Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act, which you could refer to as the 4R Act.
Peter Harnik: That’s right; that’s what they called it.
Margaret Walls: Then, there was an amendment in 1983 to the National Trail System Act of 1968. Both of those two pieces of legislation had key components to them that helped with the rails-to-trails movement. Can you tell us about that?
Peter Harnik: The 4R Act was a gigantic loss—$7 billion—to restructure the railroad. By the ‘70s, the railroad system was in a mess. Penn Central had gone bankrupt, and a lot of other companies had gone bankrupt. It was a difficult situation for the railroads. They went to Congress to try and straighten it out, and Congress had to come up with a complicated system of merging railroads—nationalizing some of them and things like that. One staff guy, a hero of mine named Tom Allison, had the idea of rails to trails and said, “If we’re doing all this stuff with restructuring the railroads, let’s at least get a little rails-to-trails experimental program into the act.” In this $7-billion bill, he put in a $5-million rails-to-trails program. They threw it open to the country saying, “If anybody has an abandoned track that they want to make into a trail, send in an application.”
They got 130 requests. They were blown away. They thought two or three people would send something in. They got 130 requests totaling over $70 million. Nine of those got funded and became wonderful trails, but it also showed everybody that there was a huge amount of latent interest in this thing. It’s not just a fluky idea, it was a great idea. That gave it a little bit of legs.
The trail system amendments were more important. By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there was a realization that the legalities concerning rail quarters were complex. It’s not like a railroad quarter just automatically becomes a trail—you have to figure out who owns the land, how they got it, when they got it, whether it was taken away from their grandfather back when he was a farmer, and all kinds of stuff like that.
There were a lot of lawsuits around creating trails out of rail land, which became a big problem. They came up with the idea of rail banking. They said, “The railroad system right now seems to be collapsing, but we don’t know in the future whether it’s going to always be like that. It might come back. These corridors are tremendously valuable. They were very expensive to assemble in the first place, so let’s put them into a bank. If you use them as a trail in the interim, then they won’t actually be abandoned. They’ll be put into a limbo state where they can be used as trails and held for a possible use as a railroad corridor again in the future.” That cleared away a lot of legal problems and made it much easier and more feasible for cities, counties, states, and even private nonprofit organizations to make some of these trails. It was a sea change for us.
Margaret Walls: You mentioned that the 4R Act provided a small amount of money, but there was a huge interest and nine projects got funded.
Peter Harnik: That’s right.
Margaret Walls: I wanted to mention one of them, which we know about because it’s right in our backyard, and that’s the Washington and Old Dominion Trail, which I’ve ridden on, and I know you’ve ridden on.
Peter Harnik: It’s right near my house.
Margaret Walls: Why was that an important one? Why did the Old Dominion Trail help in the Washington, DC, area?
Peter Harnik: The Washington and Old Dominion Trail is 44 miles long. The railroad was probably a little longer than that, but 44 miles of it was saved. The Virginia Department of Transportation grabbed a few miles of it to build a highway, and the rest of it was just sitting there. Some active citizens and an active park agency said that this would be a wonderful trail linking all the people from Alexandria out to Fairfax County and Loudoun County in the Washington, DC, suburbs. It’s a great trail and the trail agency has done a wonderful job with it.
The magical thing about it is that a lot of people in Congress, congressional staff, and other government bureaucrats in and around Washington, DC—who happened to play a role in the decisionmaking—know it’s great. When we used to go lobbying in Congress and say, “Hi, we’re here from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy,” people would look at us with a blank stare in their eyes and ask, “What are you talking about?” Then, we would say, “The Washington and Old Dominion Trail.” Then, they would go, “Oh, the Washington and Old Dominion Trail! I love the Washington and Old Dominion Trail.” That one trail is worth a million words. That helped us tremendously in moving this concept forward.
Margaret Walls: Things started to heat up in the 1980s, and that’s when you cofounded the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy with your late colleague, David Burwell. Let’s talk about what was going on at the time. Why did you decide to start a brand new nonprofit organization, which is a big undertaking, that was centered all around this rails-to-trails concept? How did you and David come together? Tell us a little bit about that.
Peter Harnik: David and I originally met through a group called Environmental Action, which was a radical grassroots organization that grew out of Earth Day. We were both interested in transportation. I was interested in bicycling. He was interested in alternatives to automobiles. We talked about a lot of things together. He learned about the rails-to-trails concept from hunters in South Dakota, which is a funny story, because he wasn’t a hunter. The National Wildlife Federation represented hunters, and the hunters would write to the federation and say, “The only place that birds can nest in all of the Midwest—since the rest of it is all planted and plowed—are the old abandoned railroad quarters that are never plowed and still have the original prairie on them. Could you please save these railroad quarters?”
I got involved on account of a trail out in Seattle that gained a lot of attention—the Burke–Gilman Trail—and I was very impressed with what the people in Seattle were able to do. We got together based on those experiences. When we first took this idea around to potential funders and other people in the environmental movement, they said what you said: “How could you ever get a group going on such a highly focused topic? Clean air, clean water, population control—all these other monumental issues are important, but rails to trails?”
We decided to give that a test, and we did a direct-mail campaign (back in the olden days when you did direct mail) to some bicyclists and hikers associated with the American Hiking Society, and we got a phenomenal return—something like eight percent. Usually you get one percent, and we got eight percent. People were saying, “This is a fantastic idea. This is recycling. We love it. It’s so doable; solving all the earth’s problems is too much for us, but saving a rail trail is something we can bite our teeth into.” It mushroomed from there. People really love the idea.
All of our work was helping local people do what they wanted to do. It was saying, “You’ve got a great idea. You’re not crazy. A few people around the country have done this same idea. Here’s how they did it. Here’s how we can try and help you do it.” Then we kept spreading the word of what a good idea it was, and it fed on itself. People in small towns are blown away when they find out that somebody in Washington, DC, thinks they’re doing a good thing. People in Washington, DC, are always blown away when they find out that people in the local districts are doing rails to trails on their own. It’s a marriage made in heaven.
Margaret Walls: I love the description in the book of the early days of the organization and late-night mapping sessions. I’m going to quote this one nugget from the book, where you say you were emulating the fantasies of the railroad builders a century and a half before by mapping out where these rail lines were abandoned and where bike paths could go. Could you talk about this a bit? How did you decide where to put your efforts? Did people come to you, or how did that work?
Peter Harnik: It was a bit of everything. We did have fantasies of connecting everything together. A lot of these railroads had names like Boston, Maine, and Pacific, because they wanted to create the image that they were going to start off in Boston and one day get to the Pacific. Even the famous Baltimore and Ohio Railroad represented this—Ohio was a magical destination for people in Boston; to get as far as the Ohio River was magical. People have kept the same way of thinking—always going west or east. We had to balance two things. One is local people periodically calling us out of the blue and saying, “We have a railroad track,” or, “We just heard that our railroad is going to go out of business—how can we save it?,” and things like that.
We had to learn on the fly. We had to learn what we were doing or create new ideas of how to do things. We signed up to get notices from what used to be called the Interstate Commerce Commission, which now serves as the Transportation Board. The Interstate Commerce Commission would send out a notice, which is a formal, unreadable piece of paper that said, “On such and such a day, this particular track, which went from practically nowhere to practically nowhere else, is going to be abandoned. You have 30 days to file an intent to replace the railroad service with your own railroad service.” We signed up for these things and we said, “We don’t want our own railroad service, but we want to save it as a trail.”
In the beginning, the Interstate Commerce Commission couldn’t comprehend that. That wasn’t what they were set up for, but they got to know us. Gradually, with our lawyers and leadership, we changed a lot of the rules, and they started saying, “Our first choice is a train and saving the railroad.” That’s the same thing that we believed. We are pro-train. We’re not trying to drive under any railroad. We think railroads are the most efficient way of moving people and goods, so we’re in favor of trains. But, if it’s going to be abandoned, let’s save the corridor and make it into a trail.
It was a two-way street where we’d suddenly get this crazy piece of paper from southwest Virginia or rural Kansas—from towns we’ve never heard of. We’d get on the phone and call these towns and anybody we could think of—the mayor, the chamber of commerce, or some local environmentalists, and we’d say, “Do you know that your railroad is going under in 30 days? You have to make a decision.” Most of them didn’t know anything about it. We were like the Paul Revere of rail trails. It was a wonderful, crazy time.
Margaret Walls: That’s great. I want to talk about funding, because there was a big sea change that happened in 1991 with the passage of what we call ISTEA, which is the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. These big transportation bills work their way through Congress every few years. This 1991 bill included, for the first time, funding for something called transportation enhancements. One of those enhancements was rail trails. For the first time, there was a lot of money available. Can you talk about that and the significance of it?
Peter Harnik: That was another huge fantasy that environmentalists had been working on for years and years—to open up the Highway Trust Fund, which is funded by the gas tax money that we all pay when we buy a gallon of gasoline. That had been earmarked for highway construction—this was billions and billions of dollars that had been off limits to anything that wasn’t highway construction. It was jealously guarded by the automobile companies, the oil companies, and the whole highway-industrial complex. For many years, the bicyclists, the mass-transit constituency, walkers, and others had been saying, “Wait a second, we’re all in this transportation business together. Everybody should get some help, not just the highways.”
The highways were driving out mass transit and all the other uses. Finally, Senator Moynihan (D-NY) was the real hero on this, along with Senator Chafee (R-RI). They opened this bill up so that other uses could be made of it. These were called the Transportation Enhancements. It was still only a fairly small amount of this gigantic amount of money, but by trail standards it was a lot of money. Finally, instead of just having a good idea, it was a good idea backed by federal money. That federal money went to the states, and then state money was available. It made a huge impact.
Margaret Walls: The funding has continued in subsequent bills, right?
Peter Harnik: Yep.
Margaret Walls: These transportation bills always include this component.
Peter Harnik: Exactly. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which still exists (I’ve started several groups, but this is the main one that still exists), works diligently to keep those provisions in the bill. The automobile industry and others would love to keep trying to take them out. It’s a constant fight. By now, many people love these trails so much that even very conservative congressmen, for instance, say, “We’re trying to cut back on government spending, but my people love these trails, so let’s put some money in for the trails.”
Margaret Walls: Peter, I think I mentioned my son bicycled across the country in 2019.
Peter Harnik: Yeah, I’m so jealous.
Margaret Walls: He went from New York City to Seattle, and the whole family participated; we got vicarious pleasure from that. His dad bicycled part of it with him out in Washington State on a rail trail—the Palouse to Cascades Rail Trail, which is a very popular one. I learned during that time that there is an effort to have a complete rail trail network across the United States. What’s up with that? Can you tell us? Do you know what the status is? Is that going to actually happen?
Peter Harnik: It’s definitely happening. I don’t have the up-to-date numbers. For the publicity campaign, they’re running it from Washington to Washington: Washington, DC, to past Seattle in Washington State. It’s something like 3,700 miles, and I think they’ve passed 2,000 already. I’m not sure of the exact number, but about 2,000 miles of it exists already. In the parts of the country where there was a thick network of abandoned railroads and a coordinated effort by a lot of the advocates, it’s already in place. I haven’t ridden across the country, but I have ridden from Washington, DC, to Pittsburgh, which is the first leg. Then, there are ways of getting from Pittsburgh to Cleveland and Cleveland to Akron and Akron to Chicago and past Chicago.
It’s a wonderful network that’s being linked together from different abandonments, and the goal is to get all the way. In the case of the Palouse to Cascades Rail Trail over on the West Coast in Washington State, they’d already crossed their whole state because they acquired one gigantic abandonment in one fell swoop. Otherwise, it’s a wonderful trail that’s gradually being fixed up. In some of the intervening states in the Great Plains and in the Rocky Mountain areas, there are fewer tracks, and it’s harder to string them together. It’s on the way.
Then, there’s another effort called the East Coast Greenway that’s perpendicular to the east-west trail; this one spans from Maine to Florida. It’ll be parallel to Interstate 95—the old US Route 1—and the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail is in the mountains, and this is in the flat lands. That’s another trail that I hope is going to be finished in the not-too-distant future.
Margaret Walls: We could avoid driving on Interstate 95.
Peter Harnik: Exactly.
Margaret Walls: I didn’t know about that one. That’s really cool.
We’ve just about reached the end of our time. We’re going to close with our regular feature that we call Top of the Stack. I know you well, so I know that you’re a voracious reader, and you probably have a big stack. Tell us what kind of reading or podcasts or anything that you would like to share with our listeners that’s on the top of your stack right now.
Peter Harnik: Well, thank you. Most of my reading is focused on cities. I’m focused on parks. I’m hoping to maybe write a book about city parks. I’m deep in the weeds on things that your readers might not consider that interesting. In addition to that, I keep my eyes open for other things, and I did come across a very interesting book that’s relevant called Stolen Focus. Some of your listeners may have already seen it; it’s by a guy named Johann Hari. The full title is Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again. It’s so relevant. It’s about how, with cell phones and social media and all the other distractions, even if you don’t have attention deficit disorder, you develop attention deficit disorder, because things are coming at you so fast. He really takes this apart and shows what’s going on with us and how it’s affecting our ability to really put our thoughts in a straight line and be effective with them. I was very influenced by that.
Margaret Walls: I think I need that book.
Peter Harnik: That’s Stolen Focus.
Margaret Walls: Got it.
Peter Harnik: It’s a good name.
Margaret Walls: Definitely. Well, Peter, it’s been a pleasure having you on Resources Radio. I’m so glad we were able to talk about your book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and we encourage everyone to read it, listen to this podcast, and then go and return to the book. I appreciate you taking the time to come on the show.
Peter Harnik: Thank you, Margaret.
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