Study pushes completion of Parkersburg to Pittsburgh rail trail

PARKERSBURG — Only 22 miles of gaps remain in the West Virginia portion of a planned 238-mile rail trail from Parkersburg to Pittsburgh, according to a feasibility study recently released by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and local trail partners.

Filling those gaps in Wood, Harrison and Marion counties would create a stretch of more than 150 miles of uninterrupted trail from Parkersburg to the border with Pennsylvania, one of the largest rail trails in the country.

“There will be an economic impact and a significant increase in usage if we can make this a continuous trail,” said Kent Spellman, a consultant with the conservancy and co-author of the study.

The study outlines not only what needs to be done to complete the West Virginia segment of the trail, but also makes recommendations on upgrades and changes to existing portions of the trail. It is intended to celebrate the work accomplished over the last 30 years and encourage and assist supporters and local officials in finishing the job, which the report says can be accomplished in less than 10 years.

“It’s very satisfying to see this moving along and gaps being filled and communities being connected,” Spellman said.

To illustrate the potential benefits of completing the trail, the report includes statistics from economic impact studies of the Mon River Trail System, a 48-mile trail network consisting of four segments, three of which are part of the Parkersburg to Pittsburgh, or P2P, corridor.

The statistics showed that more than 205,000 people visit the trails annually, trail users contribute more than $6 million a year to the economy in the Morgantown region and the average tourist coming from more than 50 miles away spends $316 a trip.

The study also notes that the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s 2016 West Virginia Sojourn drew nearly 130 people to ride the North Bend trail, starting at Parkersburg, and had an economic impact of more than $31,000.

Lloyd Roberts, chairman of the Wood County Alternative Transportation Council, said he was pleased to see the numbers in the report. He was concerned that previous projections had been “too optimistic.”

“Even if only half of what they say comes true, it will still be a lot of money coming into Wood County,” he said.

Parkersburg Development Director Rickie Yeager said the city sees the value in the trail system.

“If Parkersburg vis-a-vis Point Park and downtown is a trailhead for a much larger system … it will provide an opportunity for supportive services downtown,” he said.

The trail would also link to the Greater Allegheny Passage in southwest Pennsylvania. That “would open the door to a recreation and tourism economy worth tens of millions of dollars annually, with the potential of attracting some of the 800,000 hikers and bikers that visit the GAP each year, along with a share of the more than $40 million they spend annually in communities along the trail,” the release says.

Wood County gap

The distance between the North Bend Rail Trail and the City of Parkersburg’s Little Kanawha Connector is 5.2 miles, and the estimated cost to close it is between $1,284,349 and $5,171,223, depending on a variety of factors.

The feasibility study divides the gap into five segments.

The first is a 0.8-mile stretch from the Happy Valley trailhead parking lot at the end of the Rail Trail to Interstate 77. That property is already owned by West Virginia State Parks.

The report notes it “will be straightforward to complete, except for a slip on the western side of the I-77 bridge that will require shoring,” which is projected to cost between $323,000 and $387,000.

CSX owns and is willing to sell a 1.9-mile segment of rail for $279,000. That will bring the trail to the driveway at DeBarr Trucking on West Virginia 47.

The North Bend Rails to Trails Foundation, with the Wood County Commission acting as fiscal agent, has applied to the West Virginia Division of Highways for a federal Transportation Alternatives Grant to fund the purchase, along with a 20 percent local match of $56,000.

Trail advocates were hoping to acquire another nearly half mile of railroad property to take the trail to Corning Park at the Parkersburg city limits, but CSX has decided not to abandon that segment.

“To complete this section, a trail will need to be constructed in the strip of land between the rail line and State Route 47/Staunton Turnpike to the Park and Ride just east of U.S. 50,” the report says. “From the Park and Ride, the trail will head west down the hill under U.S. 50 and skirt along the Wincore Windows property.”

From there, the trail would go three-tenths of a mile along Staunton Turnpike to Mary Street. The report says the road is approximately 35 feet wide with parking on one side and sidewalks on both sides. Yeager said the city still has some funding left from a state grant to expand the sidewalk on a portion of the south side of the road to 8 feet to accommodate trail users, but not all the way to Corning Park.

“It’ll go a short distance,” he said.

Completion of the city’s Little Kanawha Connector Trail, which runs from Mary Street to Point Park, represents the final leg, the report says.

“Additional investments will make it an attractive connection into the terminus of the P2P corridor,” the report says. “It is important to upgrade this section of trail, as it travels through a highly urbanized area and interacts with automobile traffic on a much greater scale.”

Among the recommendations in the report are providing elements of physical separation for shared-use paths and bike lanes on East and Depot streets, adding signage and “sharrows” to certain areas, reinstating the segregated bike lanes on Second Street and repaving approximately 2,000 feet of the trail.

The cost of that work is projected to be between $303,602 and $748,274.

“I think long-term, with those improvements, you’d have to look at other funding scenarios,” Yeager said. “That’s cost-prohibitive at the moment.”

North Bend Rail Trail

The North Bend trail is the longest completed segment of the proposed P2P corridor, which the report describes as “an amazing amenity for North Central West Virginia.” However, it notes the trail has “suffered from a lack of investment in continued maintenance.”

The study recommends a full resurfacing of the trail, not including 12 of its 72 miles recently redone in Doddridge County. Doing that with crushed stone would cost between $511,758 and $5 million.

Spellman said the wide cost range accounts for environmental studies and remediation, the amount of material used and other variables, including the demand for construction services with projects that were part of the state’s $1.6 billion road bond initiative getting underway. It also accounts for drainage work and repairs of Civil War-era culverts along the trail.

“Surface is great, but if the drainage is not fixed, the surface is just throwing money away,” said Paul Elliott, North Bend Rail Trail Superintendent.

A culvert collapse about three months ago created a massive sinkhole near mile marker 16 on the trail, he said.

A state estimate once priced addressing the culverts themselves at more than $10 million, Elliott added.

Remaining gaps

The other gaps in West Virginia are a 5.9-mile stretch from the eastern extent of the North Bend Rail Trail to the southern end of the Harrison North Rail Trail, a 6-mile section between the Harrison North Rail Trail in Spelter and the West River Fork Trail in Shinnston and a 4.6-mile gap in Fairmont between the West Fork trail and the MCTrail.

There are also gaps of 17.7 miles and 9.8 miles in Pennsylvania before the P2P trail could reach the GAP.