County studies Rails to Trails project

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ROBERTSDALE – The L&N Railroad line that was a passenger and freight route through Baldwin County for most of the 20th century could become a Rails-to-Trails corridor from Bay Minette to south Baldwin under a project being considered by cities and the county.

Foley city officials met with the Baldwin County Commission on Tuesday to discuss seeking a grant from the United States National Park Service to plan a trail system along the old railroad right of way that once ran along the route now followed by Alabama 59.

Foley City Councilman Ralph Hellmich said the Park Service would provide the money to plan the project. Portions of the proposed route run through Foley, Summerdale and Robertsdale. Officials in those municipalities had first proposed a trail project from Foley to Robertsdale. The NPS, however, proposed looking at a trail down the entire railroad route, he said

“We had a 60-mile easement, why don’t we try to talk about some kind of long-term project that sets up some connectivity from Bay Minette all the way down to Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. The Eastern Shore has a lot of connectivity, but central Baldwin doesn’t have a lot of connectivity,” Hellmich said.

County Administrator Wayne Dyess said similar projects in other areas, such as Madison County, have helped the economy and local recreation.

“From my experience, trails in other locations that I have been in have been a tremendous economic development tool, tourism and things of that nature,” Dyess said.

The railroad line was built as a spur from Bay Minette to Foley at the beginning of the 20th century. The L&N had originally planned to extend the line to Fort Morgan, but stopped construction at Foley after a hurricane hit coastal Alabama in 1906.

After trains stopped running on the line in the 1980s, Riviera Utilities, Foley’s city-owned utility service purchased the right of way. Since then, portions have been sold, but most is still used as a utility right of way owned by Riviera.

Hellmich said most of the route north of Summerdale runs through unincorporated areas administered by the County Commission.

Commission Chairman Charles “Skip” Gruber said county officials would be willing to work with the cities on the planning of the project.

“The property is there from one end to the other. I know some of it is sold off, but still it’s not a bad idea. We have trails everywhere else,” Gruber said. “If y’all want to continue the lead. I don’t think the county would have any problem with helping to assist y’all.”

Miriam Boutwell, Foley community development director, said the NPS would not require that all 60 miles of the proposed route be paved. Some of the trail could still be left in a “primitive” undeveloped condition. “We just need the connectivity and perhaps markers where people realize that it’s there and can be used,” she said.

Hellmich said city and county officials will have some idea of the cost and timetable for the project once plans are drawn up and can decide how they want to proceed after that.

The Rails to Trails program is a nationwide project to convert unused railroad lines into trails for hikers and cyclists.