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Rail Trail Funding In Northam's Final Proposed Budget

Gov. Ralph Northam has proposed $245 million for outdoor recreation — with funding earmarked for the much-talked about 48.5-mile rail trail connecting Broadway to Front Royal.

“As long as it is able to remain in the budget and become appropriated, we feel like it would be a game changer for this project so this trail can come to fruition,” said Brandon Davis, executive director of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission and chair of the Shenandoah Rail Trail Exploratory Partnership.

The project has gotten support from elected officials and staff of the localities the line crosses between Rockingham and Warren counties.

 

Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, said he has been in discussions with Northam and his staff about providing the funding for the project, which is projected to generate $32.3 million per year along the trail, according to the Shenandoah Rail Trail Exploratory Partnership.

The amount that could be allocated to the project under Northam’s proposal could not be confirmed.

Hanger said funding for the project being in the proposed budget is a “hurdle cleared,” but will still need to be approved by the General Assembly.

He said it would be a one-time allocation to build the trail. Negotiations are underway with Norfolk Southern, which ones the line, and the project would take time to construct, according to Hanger.

The state’s record budget surplus — $2.6 billion — provides an opportunity to get the project done, Hanger said.

There are other one-time expenses in the funding for outdoor recreation this year, including for “critical improvements” to state parks, Hanger said. This includes for maintenance and staffing costs, which have been deferred in previous years.

Tourism is a major economic driver for the Shenandoah Valley, according to data from the Virginia Tourism Corp.

Tourism expenditures in Rockingham County reached nearly $245 million in 2019 — an increase of 5.7% from the year prior, according to the most recent data available from the Virginia Tourism Corp.

Of the $245 million for outdoor recreation in Northam’s proposal, funding is also set for two other similar trails in the state, according to Hanger.

 

He said one is on the Eastern Shore, and the other is in the Richmond area.

Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, said he wants to see the project’s details before supporting it, because he has also heard from others who want to bring rail lines back into commercial and passenger train use.

“I am for something — the rail line being used,” Wilt said. “I want it to being productive instead of just an old rail line with nothing happening.”

He said he wants to look at results of studies and hear from all groups about their ideas before supporting one in particular. However, he said he is in favor of the “concept” of the rail trail project.

“But it can’t be a boondoggle for the state,” Wilt said.

Del. Chris Runion, R-Bridgewater, said he felt similarly to Wilt — generally supportive, but not wanting to rush the project.

“I think there are folks who have reached out to elected officials with different perspectives,” Runion said.

He also had concerns about the overall state budget and how the rail trail plays into it.

“We need to look at this in a holistic manner,” Runion said.

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

Davis thanked Hanger and other Valley legislators for bringing the trail idea to the state and governor’s attention.

“This is an asset for our community that is underutilized, and we run the risk of losing this asset if we don’t act to preserve it,” Davis said. “And we feel like a trail is the best way to improve that corridor and add economic, quality of life and health value to the community.”