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A coast-to-coast rail trail project has plans to cross Wyoming

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

A transcontinental trail that’s being constructed on abandoned railroad beds is slowly connecting the East and West coasts. Wyoming Public Radio’s Hugh Cook spoke with Patrick Harrington of the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Office about the Cowboy State’s planned segment of the Great American Rail-Trail.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Patrick Harrington: So the Great American Rail-Trail is an effort by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to connect the East coast and the West coast on a non-motorized, multiuser pathway that winds through Wyoming.

Hugh Cook: This trail system runs from Washington, D.C. to Washington state, the Pacific Coast when it's all said and done. There's a lot to be done yet in many states, including here in Wyoming. Where would the routing be if that ever came to fruition?

PH: In Wyoming, my back of the napkin math says somewhere around 15 to 20 miles where the trail [has been] constructed out of the 510 proposed miles, but I think there's an effort with the Platte River Trails trust group to connect their rail trail there in the city of Casper all the way out to Douglas. And that effort is just in its initial phases, there's certainly some energy between there and Converse County to get it done.

HC: Who are some of the folks that have been supportive of these plans?

PH: What I think we're seeing in our office, those groups that have built these trails that have existing rail trails, our understanding of the quality-of-life benefits and the economic benefits that these trails bring to their community, it's those safe pathways to school, it's health and wellness in their community, and it really is a community amenity. But I think we're seeing these chambers of commerce, destination marketing organizations, the local movers and shakers are starting to see that the estimated economic impact of the rail trail is $13.2 million a year in Wyoming. And I think everybody's somewhat excited to see how they carve out their own piece. And what's unique about this trail is it doesn't just hit Wyoming's big communities; it's coming into the state [east of] Lusk and traveling all the way over to Casper and going through all the small communities along the way and then up to Greybull and then east through Cody into Yellowstone. And I think there's a lot of value for the smaller communities in having these types of tourists come through in a way that their transportation method is slow enough that they stop in these towns [to] resupply and spend the night and there's obviously those knock on economic impact values of doing so.

HC: The legislature hasn't officially allocated any funds for the project yet, but do you have any idea of what that could look like?

PH: I think as far as funding models, what I think would be the most likely and maybe most ideal outcome is kind of a mixture of public and private funding. Certainly, there are, as far as I'm aware, no dollars earmarked specifically for the Great American Rail-Trail from a state level in Wyoming, [but] there's definitely some money being moved through some of those local organizations to prioritize this work. There does exist [funds] in the Wyoming Department of Transportation's (WYDOT) TAP [Transportation Alternatives Program] program. And in the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation’s grant program, there's opportunity in both of those for this type of trail to receive funding. I don't want to speak on behalf of WYDOT that some of their money may have been used for, say, the rail trail in Casper, but in the outdoor recreation grant program, we haven't seen a funded program yet, but we haven't announced any funding. So, I think largely what we'll see is a mixture of those things with private dollars probably carrying the majority of the weight here. But just to be determined, it's yet to be seen, really, what the funding model will look like. I think the most logical next step is a more concrete route through Wyoming, and once that's established, the price tag becomes a little bit more clear.

HC: What are some of the challenges that the project currently faces?

PH: The biggest hurdle to get over, I think, or the biggest challenge up front, is going to be defining a route and having it be something that is acceptable to local private landowners and has that grassroots support. And I think this is going to be for Wyoming, this is going to probably be the biggest, most important piece just because the way we are as a state. There is really tremendous value to this trail system coming through these smaller communities. But without that local grassroots buy in, I think the project will hit some major stumbling blocks. And so that's really where I think the effort is being put right now, certainly in anything we're doing in our office and in the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, just a good faith effort to make sure this route is appropriate, and that it has those big economic impacts that these local communities are looking for while respecting the people that may own land adjacent to the trail. I think that's probably its biggest stumbling block. And once that route is established, we can start looking [at] the more fun stumbling blocks or challenges of funding this and figuring out exactly how it’s constructed on the ground.

HC: Is this something that could possibly get off the ground within the next year or several years? Or is this something that might be quite some time away yet?

PH: Our office is not necessarily setting the timeline, but I can tell you that the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is putting significant interest into Wyoming to do those things that I just talked about, that local support and pathway planning. I don't know about an exact timeline. I think we might see the route defined in the next year or two. It's [kind of like] that old adage [that] we're flying the plane and building it. Either way, it's moving. I think we're going to see those things happening simultaneously just knowing that there are groups like the Platte River Trails trust, who are actively pursuing expansion of their city-wide and maybe countywide trail system. I think we're going to see both of these things happening somewhat simultaneously. But with these projects, they can also reach sort of a tipping point where public support is there, some of those funding mechanisms start to work and they can happen quickly. So I'm hesitant to try to guess at what the timeline might look like for this. But I would say we'll see significant movement in the next five years.

HC: Is there anything else you'd like to add or expand upon that you think might be of interest about the trails?

PH: The one thing I just want to reiterate is my office's perspective that all development that we focus on in Wyoming really does have that grassroots support and that's why we host those collaboratives out across the state so that we can better understand what communities want to see for outdoor recreation development in their cities and counties. That's a very important thing to our office. And then that there's a focus both from my office and I know in good faith from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to have that local buy-in and also to be understanding and to work with private landowners as this route is developed.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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