Thursday, April 14, 2005

Vultures On the Train Tracks

Residents of Carnegie Borough in Allegheny County are looking to preserve their community's limited green space -- and are considering the possibility of expanding it. The best way to do so, they reckon, is to reconsider an old idea:

They are returning to a 2002 Trail Feasibility Study by Civil and Environmental Consultants that looked at 21 miles along the Chartiers Creek from McKees Rocks to Canonsburg Lake in Washington County.

The study found that the 21-mile trail would cost more than $2 million and draw over 200,000 users a year, said Rodd Seifarth, project manager for the study.

"The best thing we found is that the Chartiers Greenway and Valley is prime for trail development because of existing trails it could connect to, the Chartiers Trail and Montour Trail," Seifarth said.

Rail trails are a wonderful way to get out and enjoy nature. My family goes hiking and picnicking on the Panhandle Trail (called the "Chartiers Trail" in the above excerpt) several times a year. In a way, hiking the local rail trails is a more civilized version of the "going into the woods" expeditions that I undertook as a boy, but with smoother, wider paths and a greatly reduced risk of coming into contact with poison ivy.

What many people seem to be unaware of is that a rail trail is still a railroad right-of-way (ROW); if the railroad needs it back, the trail gets ripped up and new trackage is laid down. Converting unused ROWs into scenic trails is a nice use of unused sections of railroad property. The Montour Railroad went under just over two decades, so the Montour Trail can be presumed to be safe from being reconverted. The successor railroads of the once-mighty Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) abandoned the Panhandle several years ago, yet the possibility of taking back the trail -- however unlikely -- does exist, as the tracks end not far from the easternmost end of the trail.

Carnegie is interested in what used to be the Chartiers Branch of the PRR. Having changed hands a few times since the PRR's demise, the Chartiers is now part of the Ohio Central Railroad System. It is a working railroad. How does the 2002 rail trail feasibility study deal with that?
Planners focused on turning the single-lane Ohio Central Railroad, which runs tracks from Canonsburg -- through Carnegie -- to McKees Rocks, into a trail, Seifarth said. This idea became moot when talks with the operating railroad failed because of liability issues, he said.

"If the Ohio Central Railroad would ever come available it would be a tremendous asset to the county and its residents," Seifarth said.

Not only is the Pittsburgh & OC Line (POC) a working railroad, but if they abandon the Chartiers Branch to make way for a rail trail, they are still ultimately responsible for the property. And that last quote -- it sounds like someone wishing that his rich neighbor with the big swimming pool would go on a nice long vacation so that everyone else in the neighborhood could run in and go swimming whenever they please, hoping that the rich neighbor never comes back to reclaim his pool.

The Ohio Central should stick to its guns and refuse to give up the POC line. Rail trail mania is going a little too far in this neck of the woods. Carnegie residents live close enough to both the Panhandle and the Montour Trails to enjoy both without complaint. If the POC ever does shut down, then the borough can start planning its trail. Right now, they come off looking a bit like vultures waiting for their prey to die.

No comments: