When Wilson Carroll first floated the idea 14 years ago of turning the old C&G Railway line into a bike trail, it was a good idea.
Nothing has happened in the time since other than to strengthen the Greenwood native’s pitch.
If the railroad track between here and West Point, which has sat unused for more than two decades, was going to be put back into operation, it would have happened by now. Obviously, the railroad company that owns the line, Genesee and Wyoming, has concluded that it doesn’t make economic sense to restore it. There’s just not enough freight potential to justify spending more than $100 million to replace a collapsed bridge and make other repairs to bring the line back up to a usable state, even with Mississippi offering at one point to kick in up to $15 million toward the cost.
So what are the alternatives?
Do nothing and let the rail line continue to rust and rot away. Or repurpose it into what could be a significant recreational and economic asset.
The choice seems obvious.
Greenwood has shown in a small way what can be done with an abandoned rail line. It took a 1.9-mile stretch of that C&G line and turned it into an attractive linear park extending from downtown to U.S. 82.
Carroll’s vision is even grander: a paved 92-mile path, crossing six counties, that could be used for biking, hiking, walking, running, skating and, even along its shoulder, horseback riding.
It would be more than double the distance of the other two successful rails-to-trails conversions in Mississippi. And if 92 miles isn’t long enough, the super-adventuresome bikers could get off on the Natchez Trace, ride it up to Tanglefoot Trail, the rails-to-trails conversion between New Albany and Houston, and do a couple hundred miles altogether over two or three days — shopping, eating and lodging along the way.
The C&G Rail Trail, as it’s presently called, could tie in nicely with one of Greenwood’s other assets as an Amtrak stop. From Chicago to New Orleans, cyclists could ride to Greenwood on the train and be within a stone’s throw of the westernmost point of the bike trail.
The trail could be a boon for existing businesses, such as restaurants, hotels and gift shops. It could also spur new start-ups, such as a bike shop in Greenwood and bed-and-breakfasts and cafes in the small towns all along the trail.
The resident populations might not be enough to support such enterprises, but once a steady supply of tourists is added to the mix, all of a sudden the business plans become feasible.
The great thing about the proposed trail is that it’s long. Serious bikers don’t think they’ve broken a sweat if they don’t pedal 50 to 100 miles, and they’ll travel to get that kind of workout.
But there’s also a downside to being long: many more people have to be convinced to get on board to make a rails-to-trails conversion happen.
One past obstacle, the railroad, appears to be resolving itself. After years of hearing mostly disinterest from officials at Genesee & Wyoming, they have suddenly warmed to the idea, according to Carroll. Although the railroad is still going through its analysis and could back away, Carroll doesn’t believe it will.
The harder nut to crack may be convincing six counties and seven municipalities along the line to come together to form a rail trail recreational district with taxing authority to support the estimated $25 million to $30 million project and take over its management.
Although tax increases are always tricky, this would be a minimal one — a quarter-mill. That equates to an increase of only about two-tenths of 1% on property taxes for residents in those six counties. And it would open the door to generous matching funds administered by the state.
Still, some landowners along the rail line are likely to put up resistance for reasons other than financial. They won’t want strangers riding by their homes, and, as they did in 2008, will claim that a public trail will attract riff-raff and create a dangerous environment.
Although those concerns are irrational (most of these long-distance cyclists are upper middle class and above), they still may have to be addressed, if only to get the support of public officials.
For those landowners who can’t put their private desires ahead of the public good, it might have to be pointed out that the rail line doesn’t belong to them. They have no more claim over who uses it than homeowners do over the street that runs in front of their house.
If this trail can become reality, it is an exciting prospect not just for Greenwood but for a bunch of small towns. It would enhance the region’s tourism appeal, while boosting the recreational opportunities for those who live here.
It’s taken 14 years to get this far. Let’s not let the idea go dormant again.
- Contact Tim Kalich at 662-581-7243 or email@example.com.