Work to make rails near Google into hiking trail advances

May. 18, 2013 @ 07:05 AM

An outdoors group is working to turn an abandoned portion of railroad into a trail that eventually could extend to Morganton and other outlying areas as part of a historic route stretching across the region.

The longstanding plan by Caldwell County Pathways resurfaced at a Caldwell Railroad Commission meeting on Thursday, when a representative reported it is has made progress in seeking legal assistance before converting the decommissioned part of the railroad into a walking and cycling path.

Although stretching only seven miles, it is part of a broad plan by Pathways to one day establish a trail connecting to the 330-mile Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, which could bring a “significant economic impact” to the county, city manager Lane Bailey said at the meeting.

The historic trail follows the path taken by Revolutionary War soldiers from Virginia and North Carolina to reach the Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina less than 35 miles west of Charlotte. It runs through parts of Caldwell County.

The railroad commission, which owns the railroad spur in Caldwell, last met in September, when Pathways outlined plans to secure legal assistance to help maneuver through federal regulations.

Pathways now is considering entering an agreement with legal firm Ball Janik LLP, which will help obtain permits from the federal Surface Transportation Board, a regulatory agency overseeing the use of railroads across the country.  

Pathways has said it plans to use funds from grants and other donations to pay an hourly rate of $375 charged by the legal firm, which has an office in Washington, D.C. Pathways has built more than 20 miles of trails across the county, from Collettsville and the Yadkin Valley to Hudson, since forming in 2002.

The commission shut down part of the railroad in 2007 as part of an agreement to get Google to choose Lenoir for a data center. The tracks pass near the site Google chose, and Google contended that the vibrations of trains passing nearby would disturb its computer equipment.

Around that time, Pathways starting seeking ways to repurpose that portion of the railroad tracks, which runs to the northern end of Lenoir.

City Councilman Merlin Perry, who is behind the revitalization effort, likened the push to reinvent the abandoned railroad to a similar effort in Damascus, Va. There, town leaders and outdoor enthusiasts in the 1980s worked to turn an abandoned railroad into the Virginia Creeper Trail, which has helped draw tourism. The Virginia Creeper Trail stretches about 34 miles through the Blue Ridge Mountains to the North Carolina border and is one of the most widely used trails in the eastern part of the country.

Now, Perry said, Damascus is “a “thriving little town,” with more than five cycling shops and several hotels and bed and breakfasts. “And that’s happening all over the United States.”

Separately at Thursday’s railroad commission meeting, county attorney David Lackey said the county and city could close a deal by the end of the month to purchase the freight transfer station and surrounding land along the railroad from Robinson Lumber Co. The property is the site of so-called transload facility, where shipments are transferred between rail cars and trucks to serve companies along the now-abandoned portion of the railroad spur. Like other manufacturing companies near the end of the railroad, Sealed Air used to rely heavily on rail shipments before the decommissioning of that part of the railroad.