Monday, March 23, 2009

CSX on the Way!

Shelby County officials seal deal with CSX; new trail coming soon

Land next to Shelby Farms will be used for greenway

What now is an abandoned rail line through swampy forests and a sweeping cross-section of Memphis is on track to be converted this year into a biking and hiking trail that officials describe as the area's most significant recreation project in ages.

Shelby County has reached agreement with to purchase 7.04 miles of the rail corridor from Farm Road to the Poplar viaduct area. The deal clears the way for construction, by year's end, of a paved trail connecting neighborhoods just east of Midtown with Shelby Farms.

The so-called greenway, or linear park, has been a long-term goal of local officials, who say it will improve residents' quality of life, help attract new businesses and possibly end Memphis' standing as one of the nation's most sedentary and obese cities.

"I'm not at all overstating things to say that this project will have a positive impact for generations to come," Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton said. "... It touches on impacting our community's health, on linking citizens together, and even on clean modes of transportation."

This week, a County Commission committee will get its first look at a resolution authorizing the deal. It calls for the county to accept $4.775 million from the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy to cover the purchase as well as some design work and improvements to rail bridges. The nonprofit group gathered the money through private fundraising.

Most of the funds needed for the actual trail construction will come from a $1.5 million federal surface transportation grant. The only county funds needed will be a $375,000 local match for the grant.

"Anytime you can pull down $5 million by putting up $375,000, how do you walk away from that?" Wharton asked during a recent interview.

The full commission is expected to vote on the resolution March 30.

Efforts to reach CSX officials for comment late last week were unsuccessful.

The stretch from Farm Road to Avery, near the viaduct, encompasses a little more than half of the entire 13.34-mile corridor being abandoned by CSX, with the remainder extending east from Shelby Farms almost to Houston Levee Road. Local officials say they plan to begin negotiations toward the purchase of the other 6.3 miles once the first trail section is complete.

The rail corridor dates to at least 1916, but by the late-1990s it was used little. In 2003, CSX received federal authorization to discontinue service on the line.

City and county officials began their efforts to buy the corridor more than five years ago, but talks broke down as the railroad asked for as much as $17.8 million for the entire 13.34-mile stretch. A local group known as Greater Memphis Greenline was organized to promote the project.

Last year, CSX removed most of the rail and did some clearing along the corridor as the two sides came closer to agreement.

With the purchase, the western half of the corridor becomes part of the nationwide Rails-To-Trails program, which allows it to remain a contiguous property for use in recreation. Nationwide, there are about 15,000 miles of rails-to-trails projects, with an estimated 100 million users annually.

The initial seven-mile trail in Memphis will be particularly useful, proponents say, because it enhances the accessibility to Shelby Farms for Memphis residents. Officials with the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy say one of the most frequent complaints they hear concerns the inability of residents to ride bikes or walk to the 4,500-acre park from the west.

The trail represents a "seven-mile addition to Shelby Farms Park," said conservancy chairman Calvin Anderson. "It physically connects us with neighborhoods -- a goal we have had since inception."

With the resolution before the commission, the conservancy would be granted authority to operate, enhance and maintain the trail.

Conservancy executive director Rick Masson said that with the commission's approval of the resolution, construction of the paved trail should be completed well before the end of the year.

One key concern the conservancy says it is trying to address is security. Some residents living adjacent to the corridor have expressed fears that the trail might provide enhanced access not just to bikers and hikers but also to criminals.

Masson said conservancy officials have met with Memphis police officials and will meet with residents to discuss ways to maximize security. The trail won't be opened to the public, he said, until a security plan is in place.

"We're going to have a comprehensive security plan to allay any fears the community might have, and they will have input," Masson said.

Some residents welcome the trail. As she raked cut weeds and debris on a portion of the corridor behind her elderly mother's home just north of Mullins Station on Saturday, Jean Anderson said the project will represent a marked improvement.

"It'll be nice. It beats weeds and garbage," she said.

-- Tom Charlier: 529-2572

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