Rail line trail idea gets second wind

jgaines@macon.comMarch 11, 2013 

An effort to turn the former CSX rail line from Macon to Milledgeville into a multi-use trail is back on track after lying dormant for some time.

The Central Georgia Rails to Trails Association wants officials in both cities, as well as those in Baldwin, Bibb and Jones counties, to lobby for funding. A presentation to a Macon City Council committee is set for Tuesday afternoon.

“We want as many people endorsing this project as possible,” said Doug Oetter, the association’s president.

On Feb. 26 he sent a letter to Councilman Ed DeFore, asking to present the idea to council and citing the benefits of similar trails elsewhere.

DeFore suggested that council President James Timley be asked to put a presentation on the council agenda. Jim Lidstone, a member of the association’s board, is scheduled to speak to the Public Properties Committee at 4 p.m.

DeFore said the city can’t fund purchase of the land or construction work now, but he hopes the consolidated government that takes over in January 2014 will make it a priority.

The intended route begins in Macon’s Central City Park and ends 33 miles away near Walter B. Williams Park in Milledgeville. On the way it runs through several “beautiful, historic hamlets of central Georgia,” Oetter said. The trail could easily link to the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail and the Oconee River Greenway.

“We propose to build a multiple-purpose pathway to provide connectivity and promote health and recreational opportunities, such as cycling, walking, running, skating, bird watching, horseback riding, or just relaxing,” says the association’s website, www.cgrta.org.

The association incorporated as a nonprofit in 2006, with the help of the Middle Georgia Regional Commission. But after the 2007 feasibility study, it “kind of petered out” due to lack of resources, said Bob Rychel, transportation mobility manager for the regional commission.

“But lately I guess the interest has been regenerated,” he said. Association members contacted him last fall about getting reorganized, and since then they have worked on identifying everyone potentially involved in hopes of soliciting support.

Now the Central Georgia Rails to Trails Association has an 84-member Facebook group, including two Telegraph employees.

That outreach effort is apparently just beginning. Jones County Commission Chairman Preston Hawkins said he recalls the idea from discussion several years ago, but not since then.

“I haven’t talked to anybody about it,” Hawkins said. “There’s been some talk around, but that’s about it.”

Previous discussion died down when it was realized that all the route’s trestles had been removed for safety reasons, he said.

Silver Comet is prototype

The model for this project is the Silver Comet Trail, Oetter said. That trail starts in Smyrna, northwest of Atlanta, and runs 61.5 miles along the old Silver Comet rail route to Cedartown near the Alabama line. There it meets the 33-mile Chief Ladiga Trail, which runs to Anniston, Ala. The combined length of nearly 100 miles makes it the longest paved trail in the United States, according to the Silver Comet Trail’s website. CSX sold the Silver Comet line to the Georgia Department of Transportation in 1992. Cobb County leased it and began building the first trail section in 1998.

CSX owns about 90 percent of the Macon-to-Milledgeville route, and most of it remains undeveloped. A 2007 feasibility study by the Middle Georgia Regional Commission found that more than a dozen individuals or companies own some parts, though.

And there are other obstacles, including roads, active rail lines and a rock quarry.

But all of those can be circumvented, Oetter said. He’s sending a formal letter to CSX, asking that the group be officially considered to have an “interest” in the right of way.

“They have expressed an interest to work with us, but they’re a business, so they want to get their investment out of their property,” Oetter said. “They’d love to sell the whole thing.”

But it won’t be cheap: The 2007 study figured the land and construction cost for a 10-foot-wide trail at about $17.5 million.

“We’re not going to be able to do this just through private contributions,” Oetter said.

The association targets several possible funding sources: the federal Transportation Enhancement Program, Recreational Trails Program and Safe Routes to Schools Program; the Georgia Land Conservation Tax Program; and even designation as a project in a future special purpose local option sales tax. All of those options could take years of lobbying, Oetter acknowledges.

Macon Councilman Frank Tompkins went to one of the association’s recent meetings, and he thinks his fellow council members will get on board once they hear the pitch.

“I think that it’s a great idea,” he said. “It has a regional impact on this community and surrounding communities.”

Such a trail would have numerous benefits, as shown by similar projects elsewhere: for the environment, for development in some depressed areas, for historic sites and for oft-stated goals of increasing links between communities, Tompkins said.

Lidstone said he knows people who now seek to bike between Haddock and Milledgeville, using about 20 miles of back roads.

“We have very few roads in the area that are bicycle-friendly,” he said. Construction of this trail would cut their trip to 11 miles, he said.

And it should become a prominent destination for bicyclists, who spend an average of $95 per person per day for food and lodging on trips, he said.

“Something like this would bring people from all over the Southeast to ride the trail,” Lidstone said.

But the biggest boost might be to regional health, said Lidstone, who manages a childhood-obesity project in Baldwin County.

“Anything we can do to get the citizenry more physically active, I’m in favor of.”

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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