Rail Rights of Way as Important as Bike Trails

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

Many miles of abandoned and underutilized rail routes in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island have been transformed into bike paths, commonly referred to as “rails to trails.” These popular projects are growing in number, and have broad support.

In Rhode Island, there are about 60 miles of paved bike path and another 25 miles is under design. In Massachusetts, there are more than 200 miles of paved bike path. Many of those miles in both states were once rail rights of way — a resource that some believe should be banked for the future.

“I’m dead set against it,” said Ernest Loewenstein, vice president of the Association for Public Transportation. “Once these rights are gone, it’ll be hell getting them back. No thought is being given for the possible future use as actual rail routes.”

The Newton resident isn’t against bicycling; he just sees the activity as more recreation and less transportation. “Commuting by bicycle isn’t practical,” Loewenstein said. “It’s great on a nice spring day, but difficult on a humid summer day or on a cold, slushy winter day.”

The longtime public transit advocate noted this summer’s reopening of the the Cape Cod & Hyannis Railroad as an example of the benefits of maintaining rail rights of way. The line last serviced the Boston-to-Cape Cod route 25 years ago. Massachusetts officials pitched the reopening of service this past Memorial Day as a way to lessen traffic congestion, decrease air pollution and boost tourism to the Cape. Both passengers and officials have called the route’s return a success.

“The CapeFlyer is a good thing that was done right,” said Loewenstein, an optometrist by profession. “Some attention is being given to our rail system but not nearly enough. The Legislature isn’t willing to fund it. Public transit, especially our rail system, needs to be better supported. There’s no connection between North and South Station, and there’s no real connection to the Seaport.”

The Association for Public Transportation was created in the 1970s, when Massachusetts was in the midst of re-examining its transportation infrastructure and needs. At the time, Loewenstein was active with the Sierra Club before getting involved for three-plus decades with the Association for Public Transportation.

Today, the association is a small and not very active organization that is concerned the MBTA is more focused on non-fare revenue than improving and expanding transit service. Loewenstein acknowledged that not all underused rail rights of way are equally valuable, but noted that the future importance of some shouldn’t be overlooked for short-term financial gains. He also said single-track routes shouldn’t be disregarded, noting that about half of the Swiss rail system is single track.

Established in 1983 as an amendment to the National Trail Systems Act, the railbanking statute allows a railroad to remove all of its equipment, with the exception of bridges, tunnels and culverts, from a corridor and to turn the corridor over to any qualified private organization or public agency that has agreed to maintain it for future rail use.

Loewenstein said this practice is easier said than accomplished, because of pressures that would come to bear if trains were reintroduced to most now-silent corridors. “Once the conversion has taken place, there will be little possibility of reversing it, as the bicycle lobby would combine with the NIMBY set along the right of way to fight such a move,” he wrote in a letter to the editor that appeared in the Aug. 11 Boston Sunday Globe.

In a recent paper in Urban Studies, two planning scholars make the case that transit produces agglomeration. They report that this hidden economic value of transit could be worth anywhere from $1.5 million to $1.8 billion a year, depending on the size of the city. The bigger the city, they find, the bigger the agglomeration benefit of expanding transit — an idea Loewenstein, the Association for Public Transporation and others have been promoting for years.

The concept is why Loewenstein and other public transit supporters believe many underused rail rights of way in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island should be reintroduced to trains, not transformed into bike trails and walking paths — despite the many benefits of both.

Public transit improvements could cause more clustered and higher-density employment and foster urban growth, according to the aforementioned paper.

Loewenstein believes improving and expanding rail service in the Northeast corridor by reopening unused lines would bring people more easily to more places, where they could then walk or bike to their destination. Better and more accessible public transit, he said, would help get people out of their cars.

At the peak of the rail era in 1916, more than 270,000 miles of track crisscrossed the United States, carrying freight and passengers and fueling the economy. Today, nearly 13,500 of those miles, in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, are now rails to trails, according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.