Centre County missing out on economic benefits of rail trails

Rail trails in Centre County, such as this one, are not linked together to foster longer distance inter-community connectors.
Rail trails in Centre County, such as this one, are not linked together to foster longer distance inter-community connectors. CDT file photo

I ride my bicycle a lot. Over hills, dales, roads and rail trails. I’ve ridden the length of the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal (at the end of a cross-country tour). I’ve ridden trails across the country from the Coeur d’Alene in Idaho to the Raritan in New Jersey, and closer to home: Lower, Ghost Town, Buffalo Valley, and the granddaddy of Pennsylvania rail trails, the Pine Creek.

There was one thing these trails had in common — besides being scenic, attractive, safe recreation for families and kids from 1 to 100, they were hubs of tourism and economic activity. Communities once on the verge of joining those along the aptly named “Ghost Town” trail were given a shot in the arm when the local trail opened. You can see it in the signage around the town, you can see it in the storefronts, and you can hear it in the shopkeepers’ welcoming voices. I did not see anything detractors of rail trails often list as reasons to block new trails: no trash, no vandals, no decreasing property values, no drinking partiers, and no criminals. I did see decent folks out recreating, picking up after themselves (and others), improving their physical and mental health, and small towns staying vibrant with increasing real estate values all along the trails.

So what question haunts me on these trails, far away from home? Why not here? We have potential links from State College to Bellefonte, Lemont to Lewisburg, and one I’ve not heard mentioned recently, State College to Tyrone (the southern part of the Lewisburg-Tyrone line, an 85-mile trek in toto).

While part of the Centre Region has a great network of urban trails and lanes, we fall short on longer distance inter-community connectors. Instead of attracting businesses interested in progressive communities; thousands of rail trail enthusiasts spending tourist dollars; vibrant connectors allowing students and commuters cheap, pollution-free safe passage; new shops and cafes, what do we have in Centre County? We have 1.5 miles of finished trail on the Bellefonte Central in Penn State’s Arboretum, which falls a mile short of connecting Toftrees (and beyond) with campus. Another 1-mile trail in Howard. And a rail trail in Snow Shoe exclusively for ATVers.

On the impact of the Great Allegheny Passage, a 2012 Frostburg State University and St. Vincent College study reports:

Direct annual spending by trail users exceeds $40 million. This economic infusion has enabled a resurgence of many towns that had declined with the loss of mining jobs and the original railroad. Trail-related businesses pay out $7.5 million in wages every year, and since 2007, 54 new or expanded businesses serving trail users have created 83 new jobs in eight small towns.

We are missing a big economic boat. Rail trails also fit well with the intentions of the recently announced 3B33 initiative to attract and retain businesses in the area. It’s time for our community leaders to dust off the Centre County Greenway plan and start building trails.