RD844 - Feasibility Study for a Linear Park in the Shenandoah Valley – November 1, 2021

Executive Summary:

The 2020 General Assembly of Virginia passed House Bill 1800 requiring the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to study the feasibility for the development of a linear park along the Shenandoah Valley rail corridor from Front Royal to Broadway, Virginia. The Resolution also requested that DCR include the potential timeline for abandonment of existing Norfolk Southern rail sections B51.0 to B84.0 and CW84.0 to CW99.5, anticipated annual user revenues, and all start-up and ongoing costs of operation as a satellite facility of Seven Bends and Shenandoah State Parks.

The 49-mile study corridor passes through three counties and eight towns within the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission and the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission. In Toms Brook, the corridor is crossed by the 252-mile Tuscarora Trail, a spur of the Appalachian Trail that connects both sides of the Lee Ranger District of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. The entire study corridor is within the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District, with potential side trail connections to Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, and Shenandoah National Park. The corridor passes within a mile of Seven Bends State Park in Woodstock and New Market Battlefield State Historical Park.

DCR, in coordination with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and their consultant, Michael Baker International (MBI), led the feasibility effort. VDOT and MBI were tasked with executing a public survey, field survey, environmental review, and cost estimates for the horizontal and vertical facilities along the rail alignment.

The Shenandoah Rail Trail Exploratory Partnership, a multi-jurisdictional partnership composed of public, private, and non-profit organizations along the corridor, was formed with the vision of transforming the unused rail corridor into a multi-use trail. Partnership members representing all the towns, counties, and other entities along the rail corridor submitted resolutions of support and made them available to DCR. On behalf of the Partnership, Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley played a key role in coordinating communications and outreach efforts to both community members and elected officials, including the development of a project website, brochure, and other materials in both English and Spanish platforms. Additionally, staff from the National Park Service Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program have been involved from the start providing assistance in creating project management and strategic action plans, designing and implementing a community outreach and participation strategy; and working with DCR to facilitate the listening sessions.

With the permission of Norfolk Southern Corporation, VDOT and MBI staff performed a field survey in May 2021 to determine the requirements for a rail-trail project and to develop cost estimates. During the field visit, staff documented structure deficiencies, typical cross-section widths, and geometric and natural challenges. The project team also performed a desktop review of environmental resources, roadway crossings, and possible trailheads. The field survey and desktop review found that:

• Bridge structures have good structure capacity but require some repair

• The rail alignment, with the proper construction methods, can accommodate standard trail cross-sections

• 73 of the identified 117 roadway crossings are low-volume and can be addressed with low-cost countermeasures

• 8 of the 13 trailhead locations have been identified that either use existing facilities or can be provided or expanded on government-owned properties

Using the information from the assessment, the study team staff separated the alignment into six segments with logical termini. A 10-foot wide trail with 2-foot wide shoulders was selected as the preferred typical cross-section. MBI engineering staff developed cost estimates for a hard or soft surface trail based on the preferred typical cross-section, the required bridge and culvert repairs, trailhead requirements, and rail-removal costs. Staff found that the total cost per mile of $1.1 million to $1.3 million is slightly higher than the average rail-trail project due to the number of structures along the alignment.

Funding for the acquisition, development, and management of the rail trail will be vital to the feasibility of this project. The table below summarizes the total costs associated with each component needed to execute this effort. A state assessment valued the corridor to Heritage Park at $17.39 million, but a third-party appraisal was not completed in time for this report

Item:  Acquisition
Total Cost:  $15.0-25.0M

Item:  Trail Construction
Total Cost:  $28.0M - $36.0M

Item:  Bridge Construction/Repairs
Total Cost:  $26.9M

Item:  Preliminary Engineering
Total Cost:  $4.0M - $6.0M

Item:  Rail Removal
Total Cost:  $9.0 - $11.0M

Item:  Trailheads
Total Cost:  $7.0M - $15.0M

Item:  Operating Costs
Total Cost:  $1.4M/YR
All costs are in 2021 dollars

Public survey and outreach found widespread support for the project with some concerns raised by a few adjacent landowners. The public supported a 10-foot wide interpretive trail with a well-maintained, consistent, hardened surface that would provide spur connections to destinations both locally and throughout the Valley. As well, public feedback requested that trailheads provide adequate parking, restrooms, orientation kiosks, water, rest areas, bike racks/tools, and public art. In addition to the public survey, interviews with local jurisdictions indicate a willingness to support the project depending on local capacity.

Demographic research documented latent demand for bike/ped infrastructure in the study area. Walkability scores are low between towns and the existing bicycle infrastructure (shared roadways) primarily serves higher-skilled users. Bike/ped commute rates are low except in Harrisonburg and Front Royal, where more bike lanes and sidewalks connect to employment and education opportunities. The Lord Fairfax Health District has some of the state’s highest levels of overweight populations with obesity, hypertension, and high cholesterol, all chronic diseases that can be treated with greater levels of physical activity. There are also higher levels of disability present, a population that would benefit from a safe, shared-use path connecting communities. There are several areas along the tracks that have linguistically isolated and low-income households, and many of these households do not have a car, another demographic benefitting from a safe, active transportation alternative.

There is a need for more park acreage in the study area. There are not enough federal, state, or local parks to meet demand in Northern Virginia. Unmet demand has resulted in people being unable to access destination parks and long wait times.

Finally, several management alternatives exist for the rail corridor. Management alternatives include a state-owned corridor managed by a partner that receives General Assembly budget allocations or sufficient donations from private sources or a state-owned and managed corridor. The unmet demand described above may provide opportunities to partner with the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service. If Norfolk Southern and the Surface Transportation Board approve the sale, a regional or local authority or commission could own and manage the trail.

In conclusion, a linear park from the Town of Broadway to the Town of Front Royal is feasible. While the cost of acquiring the rail corridor from the Norfolk Southern Corporation is unknown at this time, and although the initial cost for construction is estimated to be significant, the segmentation and alternatives presented in this study provide multiple strategies that make the execution of this project attainable. The challenge of ongoing maintenance should be addressed through a dedicated funding source to ensure that the project moves forward.

Although unknown at the time of this study, Norfolk Southern’s willingness to sell and associated rail abandonment may affect the total cost and timing of the project. Property purchase is dependent upon willing sellers. The number of willing sellers was unknown at the time of the study.

This report is divided into three sections to address the resolution’s three requests regarding feasibility, timing, and anticipated revenues and costs.