Best reuse of abandoned freight rail corridors – public transit, anyone?

Rwt050125_2[1]Back in Nov. 2012, I posted an editorial covering Fresno County’s first Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy workshop held on the 7th. The idea behind the workshop, as I understood it, was to present ideas on ways to reduce the area’s carbon footprint.

Workshop participants worked in teams with an average 7 to 9 people per team and with 13 teams in all, about 100 people participated.

In the group that I participated in, one of the suggestions made was to convert an active rail line running on a basically northwest-southeast alignment through the city to a recreational (hiking-biking) trail.

In the Nov. 2012 op-ed, my response to this was: “Even if that were to happen in this case, what would remain in the original rail line’s absence would be a vacated right-of-way that would require conversion to a trail mainly to be used for recreational purposes. Please note the rail line in question has remained active and in continuous use since the late 1890s. That’s better than 100 years and personally I don’t believe that particular railroad segment is going anywhere else anytime soon.”

As it relates, this was done on more than one occasion in the city already. In fact, I can think of two different trails located in the city where railroad rights-of-way were converted to recreational paths. I have nothing against doing this sort of thing, but if the objective of doing so is to reduce an area’s carbon footprint and air pollution impact, I do not believe this to be a very effective approach and here is why.

A rail company’s decision to abandon a section or sections of rail line for whatever the reason, is a move that is invariably going to affect company bottom line. If continued operation means operating at a monetary loss, then applying for abandonment approval seems warranted. Keep in mind that when conditions reach this stage, the rail line in question is probably used very infrequently or not at all. And, if that’s the case, the conversion of the right-of-way into a recreational trail in and of itself will not have that much if any impact on reducing area air pollution. The greatest air-pollution-reduction gains as it pertains to the railroad right-of-way in question comes with a reduction in rail service – the less frequent operations are conducted, presumably the less the railroad’s impact on area air quality.

But as in the case of the workshop-participant suggestion to remove rail service from one corridor only to have it relocated to another thereby taking the corridor which is to be abandoned and converting it into a recreational trail, does nothing, in my opinion, to reduce an area’s carbon footprint and lessen air-pollution impact. What happens instead is air pollution caused by rail operations in one area would correspondingly and subsequently be transferred somewhere else.

As I mentioned before, I am not opposed to rail lines being converted to hiking-biking trails when the situation is warranted. But if the object of the right-of-way conversion is to reduce the impact of air pollution in a particular area, then, in my view, this thinking is off base.

I will say this, though. In the case where an abandoned railroad right-of-way is revived and converted into a public transit corridor where the corridor is well patronized and results in getting significant numbers of people to give up driving in favor of taking public transit, then this approach can be extremely effective in mitigating air pollution’s impact as has been demonstrated time and time again.

– Alan Kandel