Support grows for US trail system proposal allowing coast-to-coast travel without roadways

When Mike O’Neil opened his bicycle repair shop in Muncie, Indiana, the Cardinal Greenway trail just outside its window stretched only 2 miles south of the shop.

Today, it extends 33 miles beyond that, but the ultimate vision is far grander.

O’Neil hopes the trail born from eastern Indiana’s old railroad tracks will eventually become a central cog in the proposed Great American Rail-Trail — a continuous network of walking and biking routes spanning from Washington state to Washington, D.C.


“As the trail gets longer, more and more people use it,” said O’Neil, who has completed five coast-to-coast bike trips and usually comps the repair costs for out-of-state cyclists visiting his Greenway 500 Bike Shop, which he’s owned for nearly two decades. “It would be a wonderful blessing to have it all connected.”

A woman runs on March 13, 2024, by the Cardinal Greenway in Muncie, Indiana. The Cardinal Greenways pathway, born from eastern Indiana’s abandoned railroad tracks, is set to become a central cog in the Great American Rail Trail. (AP Photo/Isabella Volmert)

The Biden administration was set to open applications Tuesday for a new grant program that for the first time prioritizes not just building trails but connecting the existing ones. The 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law allowed for as much as $1 billion over five years for the program, but Congress has authorized less than $45 million so far.


Still, trail activists say the commitment is almost as important as the dollar figure.

“The number is not as big as we want it to be, but the fact it’s happening is huge,” said Brandi Horton from the Rails to Trails Conservancy. “The administration is understanding in a way we’ve never seen before the role that active transportation has in helping people get around the places where they live.”

Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt said active transportation options provide health benefits and are as important as electric vehicles in limiting greenhouse gas emissions. He recalled biking along trails on the East Coast when he was Delaware’s transportation director and seeing some of the unsafe gaps in the system.

“Unless we have these networks fully developed, many people won’t be able to take advantage of it,” Bhatt said.

Officials are expecting a highly competitive grant process, including applications from many of the communities along the planned route of the 3,700-mile (5,966-kilometer) Great American Rail-Trail. While the ambitious project currently includes more than 125 completed trails across 12 states and the nation’s capital, significant gaps remain — particularly in rural Western states such as Montana and Wyoming.

Michael Kusiek, executive director of the active transportation advocacy group Wyoming Pathways, said reliable trails are especially important for states with rugged terrain. Cyclists and backpackers will often skip routes that aren’t certified as safe, he said.

Although state and local governments in rural areas might not prioritize trails the way larger population centers do, Kusiek said the national effort has spurred competition.

“I think we’d like to not be the last ones showing up to cross the finish line,” Kusiek said.

Wyoming’s northern neighbor of Montana was awarded a $24 million federal grant last week to extend a recreational trail that had been cut off by a highway and overpass.

Another Montana segment of the Great American Rail-Trail passes by the 50,000 Silver Dollar Inn in Haugan. Brooke Lincoln, who owns the motel and other businesses nearby, said linking the trails to a national network could be a huge benefit to numerous small towns.

“We’re very depressed,” Lincoln said. “We have very little private property. Our timber industry is basically gone, so our economy is becoming more and more recreation-based. The more diverse that base is, the better it’s going to be.”

Amanda Cooley, one of the leaders of an initiative to close western Montana’s trail gaps, said residents often don’t understand the importance of such projects until they’re complete.

“When you go to a place like Deer Lodge, Montana, people still wave at you at the stop light,” Cooley said. “The pace of life is just a little slower. When you’re a pedestrian or on a bike, it allows you to experience more. It allows you to take more in instead of just flying by.”

Railroad tracks established most of the key arteries for the Great American Rail-Trail, but many of the proposed connectors present unique challenges. For example, Ohio and West Virginia have made progress toward completing their trail networks, but the Ohio River separating them is a potentially costly obstacle for both states.

A stand-alone recreational bridge connecting Steubenville, Ohio, and East Steubenville, West Virginia, could cost upwards of $35 million, said Mike Paprocki, executive director of the BHJ Metropolitan Planning Commission, which has studied the project. Officials instead are seeking federal funding for a $160 million multimodal bridge for motorized vehicle traffic, with a separate segment for pedestrians and cyclists alongside it.

“Without the infrastructure bill, we wouldn’t be having these conversations,” Paprocki said. “We’d be fighting tooth and nail to get money and would probably be left off the food troth.”

Some of the efforts to expand trails over former railroad tracks have also been complicated due to legal action. Lindsay Brinton, an attorney for St. Louis-based Lewis Rice, said trails can devalue property and she’s trying to make sure the landowners she represents are justly compensated under the laws that protect their rights.


“People are frustrated and disappointed,” Brinton said. “I have lots of clients who live in rural Indiana who say, ‘We don’t want a trail here.’ But that can’t even be factored into the analysis. Nobody cares what the landowners want.”

Indiana’s Cardinal Greenway trail stretches 62 miles between Marion and Richmond with a several-mile gap in the middle. In many ways, it represents both the future of active transportation and its roots in rail travel. In fact, the nonprofit organization that manages the trail operates out of a former train depot.

O’Neil, 57, remains optimistic that eventually the trail passing by his bike shop and stopping just short of the Ohio border will carry cyclists into that state and then all the way to the East Coast. How quickly that will happen, however, is dependent on finding much larger pots of money to fill the gaps.

“We’re oh so close,” he said.

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