“Trail Voices” highlights the work of rail-trail supporters around the country. Our interview subjects are anyone from high-level urban planners to local volunteers, and no contribution to the trails, walking and bicycling movement is too big or too small–dedication comes in all sizes. We could never tell all the personal stories that make rail-trails a success, but we can share a few of the voices behind the movement.
Neal Brendel has been a lawyer with the Pittsburgh office of K&L Gates since 1979. He’s been a partner since 1986, and one of his projects is to provide pro bono legal work for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC). At K&L Gates, Brendel represents parties in commercial disputes, often involving contracts and insurance. Providing legal counsel for RTC, though, allows Brendel to combine his law career with his love for the outdoors by clearing legal hurdles for trail development. “There are many different legal challenges people make, but at the end of the day we do what we can to remove those barriers so that the entities can complete their trail,” says Brendel.
Most recently, Brendel, along with K&L Gates attorney William Semins, worked on a case for RTC involving the 52.5-mile Armstrong Trail in western Pennsylvania. The Moody v. Allegheny Valley Land Trust case dealt with the issue of railbanking—a federal law that allows an out-of-use railroad corridor to be converted for interim trail use, thereby preserving the corridor until such time as rail service is deemed necessary again. On July 20, 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed that the Armstrong Trail is entitled to the protections of private railbanking, establishing an important precedent for rail-trail development around the country. (When fully completed, the Armstrong Trail could connect to the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage and link to a continuous route from New York to Maryland and onto Washington, D.C.)
RTC’s legal program, administered by RTC General Counsel Andrea Ferster, is often behind the scenes yet very much at the forefront of RTC’s work promoting and protecting rail-trail corridors. The assistance of Brendel and other pro bono attorneys is critical to RTC’s efforts to influence trail policy at the courtroom level and offer legal assistance to trail groups in particular cases around the country.
What got you interested in doing work for RTC?
I grew up right outside Pittsburgh, Pa., and used to always find time to ride the Great Allegheny Passage. I watched the trail movement grow, especially in the Pennsylvania area. I enjoy doing work for RTC because it is a nice break from the usual sort of cases I deal with. RTC cases are always fun and interesting.
What is the most rewarding part about doing pro bono work for RTC?
For me, the biggest reward is that the legal work is for a good cause. At the end of the day, I know there will be a new trail to ride on, and lucky for me it’s right in my backyard. When I ride down the Allegheny, there are parts of the trail that are still barricaded off, so it’s satisfying to be able to see parts of the trail open up.
What has been your most memorable rail-trail experience?
My favorite trail experience has been the Butler-Freeport Community Trail, a rail-trail in western Pennsylvania that connects the city of Butler to the Allegheny River port of Freeport. I love biking on this trail because it goes through so many different terrains. As you start the climb away from the valley, you encounter everything from open woods to forest to farmland. The trail is also great for bird watching.
Another reason the Butler-Freeport Community Trail is one of my favorites is because it was one of the first trails that gave rise to the legal precedent where courts started to recognize the concept of private railbanking. Whenever I ride the trail, I think of its legal precedent.
How often do you get out on the trails?
In the summer I try to go out for about 40 to 50 miles once or twice a week. My wife is actually doing a trail ride with a community group from D.C. to Pittsburgh. It’s exciting because she’s riding all rail-trail connections, about 360 miles. It’s satisfying to see the number of people who love using the trails. I have the impression that it takes a while for people to become aware of a rail-trial, but now you see everyone using them. It’s great!