By Carol Vaughn —
Results of a survey about a proposed 50-mile bicycling and walking trail along the Shore’s railroad right-of-way indicate high interest in the project.
The area being studied by the highway department is between Cape Charles and Hallwood.
The survey attacted 3,400 participants, 90% of whom said they would use the trail.
Of Eastern Shore survey takers, 88% would use the trail.
Towns along the corridor could benefit, according to a chamber of commerce representative.
“In 1884, the railroad created many thriving towns that border the rail. The new ESVA healthy recreation rail trail offers the enormous opportunity to breathe new life back into these towns,” said Robie Marsh, Eastern Shore of Virginia Chamber of Commerce executive director.
The corridor goes through Hallwood, Bloxom, Parksley, Onley, Melfa, Keller, and Painter in Accomack County and Exmore, Nassawadox, Eastville, Cheriton, and Cape Charles in Northampton County.
Onley Mayor Matt Hart called the survey results “very positive and in my opinion predictable.”
He said, while he wishes the train were still running, the tracks’ poor condition, cost to restore them, and lack of use “makes this an unrealistic wish.”
“I truly believe the rail-to-trail is the way to go and it’s encouraging to know that the study by VDOT strongly supports this idea,” he said, adding, “It’s important we save our history here on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, but when cost becomes so high it’s unattainable, common sense tells us we must look for another option.”
Hart said the trail would have “many positive impacts on our community.”
“The rail-to-trail would be a great asset for local people, but would also attract cyclists from throughout the region who would need places to stay and dine,” said Mary Burnham, who with husband Bill owns Burnham Guides Paddling Adventures in Onancock.
“We are looking forward to VDOT’s planned bike lane on Market Street from Onancock to Route 13, which would not only provide a safe route for bikers, but could connect Onancock to the rail-to-trail in Onley. We already rent bikes and if the trail came to be, we’d add more bike supplies, repairs, and shuttles,” she said.
The proposed trail “will increase the quality of life for all that live on the Shore, help our employers with recruiting and retention of our workforce, and greatly complement and grow our tourism industry,” while keeping the railroad right-of-way intact, Marsh said.
“I can envision local families of one town setting out on a family biking adventure to another town, whether three miles or 10 miles away, for shopping, activities, and meals. I can also envision tourists overnighting in one town’s accommodations and cycling to other Shore towns, whether three miles or 50 miles away, for shopping, activities, and meals. It can truly interconnect the towns of the ESVA,” he said.
Survey results will affect planning and be included in a written report, according to John Bolecek, VDOT statewide bicycle and pedestrian planner.
“The survey was mainly meant to assess how people would view a rail-to-trail project as beneficial to them — what value would it have to you,” Bolecek said.
The number one benefit survey takers mentioned is having a safer place to walk and bicycle, followed by health benefits and increasing tourism.
For Eastern Shore residents, the top two benefits cited were having a safer place to walk and bicycle and the health benefit, followed by a tie between economic development and improving the quality of life.
Improving residents’ health could turn out to be a significant benefit.
The Shore lags behind the rest of the state in several measures of health — including obesity, physical inactivity, and access to exercise opportunities, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Thirty-five percent of Accomack residents and 36% of Northampton residents are obese, compared to 27% statewide, according to foundation statistics used in the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s 2018 Virginia Outdoors Plan.
While 21% of adult Virginians report doing no leisure time physical activity, the figures are higher on the Shore — 28% for Accomack residents and 27% for Northampton residents.
In VIrginia, 81% of residents have adequate access to places to exercise, but in Accomack County, only 41% do and in Northampton County, 44% do, according to the plan.
The trail could help improve those statistics.
Forty-five percent of all survey takers said they would use the trail for bicycling and 32% said they would use it to walk. Twelve percent said they would run.
For Eastern Shore residents, uses were more evenly split — 38% would use it for bicycling; 37% for walking; and 13% for running.
Thirty-seven percent of survey takers would use the trail for recreation; 36% would use it for exercise; 21% would use it for social or family outings; and 6% would use it to commute to work or shopping.
The study, which got underway in January, will evaluate existing conditions, identify preferred trail alignment, develop cost estimates, and give options for trail management.
The study includes getting feedback from state and federal agencies, localities, special interest groups, and the public.
In addition to answering questions, survey takers made more than 6,000 comments.
“We actually went through all those comments, because there was just an overwhelming thing of people saying, ‘I would love it if this was built,’” Bolecek said.
Of the total, 87% were positive.
Typical themes included comments like “Build it now!”
Safety was another theme.
“One of the things that struck me is that people felt like there was no safe place to walk or bike. A lot of people said that their town didn’t have any sidewalks, that they wanted to walk their dog but there was no place to do it,” Bolecek said, adding, “A lot of people said that they didn’t really have a place to get exercise….It just really struck me, the number of comments that talked about just wanting to…walk someplace.”
Additional comments were that the trail would help businesses and be an alternative to the beach for recreation.
Of 7% of comments that were negative, themes included: the right-of-way should be used to improve Route 13; tracks should be kept for train rides; the project is a waste of money; and farming concerns — including ability to move farm equipment and apply pesticides and concerns about trespassers.
Results were included in VDOT’s presentation to a stakeholder group in June.
The study should be completed later this year. Planning studies’ purpose is to prepare projects to go into the highway department six-year program for funding, according to Bolecek.
Applications for SmartScale funds for certain sections also are being submitted, and there are other options for funding, including VDOT’s transportation alternatives or recreational access programs.
The Boards of Supervisors of Northampton County and Accomack County in December signed resolutions supporting conversion of the railroad corridor to a rail-to-trail use.
Information about the VDOT rail-to-trail study can be viewed at https://www.virginiadot.org/projects/hamptonroads/eastern_shore_rail_to_trail_study.asp