I think I can, I think I can. What was once the mantra of a small optimistic train has taken on new meaning for many walkers and runners around the country. Underutilized tracks across the country are increasingly being transformed into flourishing parks and walking trails. This “rails-to-trails” movement continues to pick up steam, so we have collected a few prominent examples of some of these “trainsformations”. Whether it is a raised railway in a busy city or just a tripping hazard in an open field, abandoned railways can make for a great new park. And with the economic and health benefits that parks and trails provide the community, those advocating for rail-to-trail conversions have great intentions. What I am saying is, their motives certainly aren’t loco… alright, enough with train puns. Caboose.
The first section of the 1.45-mile this elevated train track conversion in New York City was completed in 2009 and there have since been three other sections added to the park. The park attracts five million visitors a year and brings in $2.2 billion in new economic activity. With these numbers, it is estimated that the park will raise tax revenues by $980 million over the next 20 years.
Beyond the numbers, High Line Park is home to over 500 species of plants and trees. Alongside these plants are several art installations commissioned by the “Friends of High Line” group. High Line also hosts several programs that bring people from the community together to learn something new, improve their health, or just enjoy a performance.
Image courtesy of Elizabeth Villalta via Adobe Stock
To make use of all the unused tracks from its days as the hub for the Western & Atlantic railroad, Atlanta constructed the BeltLine. This 22-mile loop encompasses the city of Atlanta and improves mobility in the area while connecting isolated neighborhoods and spurring economic development along its path. The BeltLine has a goal of bringing $10 billion of economic development to Atlanta. At the end of 2021, the project has already driven $8.3 billion of economic impact towards that goal, with several businesses and restaurants lining the path and many more to come.
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Louisiana’s first rails-to-trails conversion sits just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. The 31-mile Tammany Trace trail is built on top of the Illinois Central Railroad and travels over 31 bridges built on top of the original railroad trestles. In a 2015 case study of Tammany Trace, it was found that the trail brought in $7.25 million of economic impact to the area.
The trail is built on a rich history. In the 1800s, the St. Tammany Parish served as a summer vacation spot for wealthy New Orleans citizens that were seeking respite among the piney woods and moss-covered oak trees. Today, the trail features some great places to visit such as the Abita Brewpub and the historic Dew Drop Jazz & Social Hall where jazz greats including Louis Armstrong once played.
Image courtesy of Judy via Adobe Stock
The conversion of The 606 elevated train was planned and executed by a public-private partnership between the City of Chicago, The Chicago Park District, and The Trust for Public Land and was completed in 2015. According to The 606 website, the project had a budget of $95 million coming from a mix of state and local funding as well as private donors. The elevated trail connects four Chicago communities, has several art installations along its path, and hosts an observatory.
The 606 has been a key driver of property values in the areas surrounding the trail since it opened. A report from the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University found that housing prices on the western side of the trail increased by nearly 344 percent since 2012.
The history of the Bloomingdale Line/The 606 in Chicago is like that of the High Line in New York City. After several deaths and even more injuries were caused by trains, the City Council passed a mandate in 1893 that required the train tracks to be elevated. This helped to reduce the number of interactions between people and trains, but after nearly 100 years, the trains stopped traveling on those tracks and the wildlife of Chicago started to overcome the area leading to an interest in a formal park conversion.
Image courtesy of 606 Vision via Adobe Stock
Finishing off this list is the largest rails-to-trails project in the United States. The Katy Trail in Missouri stretches 240 miles across the state and winds through parts of Missouri’s bluffs, floodplains, and forests. The trail was built on the (former) Missouri – Kansas – Texas railroad also known as the MKT railroad or the Katy Railroad. Part of the trail, that travels from Cooper County to St. Charles County, was used by Lewis and Clark when they made their journey across the West. The Katy Trail has been designated as an official segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, part of the American Discovery Trail, and named one of the Millennium Legacy Trails. According to the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation, the trail drove $29.2 million in economic impact in 2022.
Image courtesy of Missouri State Parks
Rails-to-trails conversions are a great way to provide people with beautiful parks, greenspaces, and trails by making use of our unused railroads across the country. One of the best features of some of these conversions is their ability to revitalize areas and bring economic development. A lot of the towns that run along the railroads were formerly popular because of their impact on local economies. It’s great to breathe new life into those areas while also preserving and sharing their history with the new occupants of the rails. Be sure to look out for some rails-to-trails projects near you because they are everywhere!