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Might there be a third rail for bike path?

July 15, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

Given the $16 million price tag, half of it to be raised locally, the Washington County Commissioners probably had little choice but to abandon plans for a rail trail connecting Hagerstown to the Potomac River through Pleasant Valley.

To many residents, this one simply didn’t pass the eyeball test — millions of dollars in exchange for a thin ribbon of asphalt.

It is understandable too that the county and Hagerstown already have a major recreational project on their plate, a $30 million stadium downtown. This is likely a situation where we could afford one or the other, but not both.

The timeline also seemed strange, taking nearly three decades to complete. No doubt this was simply a way of stretching out the costs to make the project more affordable, but it’s hard to generate excitement for a rail trail among a demo of people whose only chance of accessing it would by that time be by wheelchair.

Finally, the trail, plain and simple, would have bisected a meaningful number of backyards and gone within mere feet of existing homes. Property rights still mean something in this country, and even if the people who live there do not own the land, there’s still an element of fairness and decency that calls for respecting their privacy.

It is probable that, had the trail proceeded, there would have been court action over ownership of the old rail bed. Some folks pretty clearly believe it’s theirs (or never thought the day would come when the issue would come up) because they’ve built sheds and parked vehicles on it.

Yes, they assumed the risk of appropriating something they probably understood, deep-down, wasn’t theirs, but I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing had I been in their shoes.

But all that said, the one commissioner who seemed to see the bigger picture was Ruth Anne Callaham, who seemed disinclined to slam the door on the project for ever and ever.

She asked if supporters of the trail might still be able to collect information from the county that might address questions and concerns that have been raised about the project.

That’s a realistic question, especially since the project was going to take 30 years as it was. A lot can change in that amount of time.

One is that Washington County might not always be staffed by the band of Professional Opponents who don’t want tax money spent on anything that doesn’t directly benefit them.

There might come a day in the next 30 years when a majority will see the value in elevating all aspects of society, be it children or elderly, infrastructure or art, public safety or recreation.

Also, this particular rail trail would seem to lend itself to flexibility.

Anyone who has bicycled much of Pleasant Valley knows that it includes some nice stretches of relatively flat country road that already resemble a rail trail as they stand now.

Not surprisingly, these lonely stretches of road very closely parallel the old railroad bed. They also front the homes that would be most significantly affected by bicycle traffic.

There’s probably a statute somewhere that prevents it, but common sense would dictate that a Potomac-Hagerstown bike path could be woven from the rail bed where it doesn’t interfere with private homes, and the county road where it does.

That should address the legitimate concerns of property owners (one assumes that some of the sillier arguments against the trail, like the potential for garbage dumps and crime sprees, were just attempts to throw anything and everything against the trail to see what would stick) while saving significant amounts of money and speeding up the timetable for completion.

So to Callaham’s implied point, why drive the stake through the trail when other options might exist? We already have something of a reputation in the capital for spitting on any and all state-sponsored improvements (what other jurisdiction writes letters in opposition to it’s own grant requests?).

A flat rejection of the trail is one more message to the state saying, “Don’t bother trying to help these guys, they don’t want it and they’ll only shout you down for your trouble.” This might be fine in principle, but no one is going to come along and lower our taxes thanks to our lofty ideals.

Instead, our tax dollars will simply be spent in other parts of the state, and the people of Frederick, Bowie, Baltimore or Salisbury won’t even bother telling us thanks.

And tourists, and the world, will continue to pass us by.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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