“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, hiking 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.
For February, we tracked down Gwen Loose, project coordinator for the York County Rail Trail Authority in York County, Pa. Trails have been in her blood—and under her boots—for as long as she can remember. Loose is an avid hiker and member of the York Hiking Club, which helps maintain a section of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) that passes over Peter’s Mountain, north of Harrisburg, Pa. The A.T. is maintained entirely by individual volunteers and volunteer maintaining clubs, she says. The York Hiking Club is one of the oldest maintaining clubs. Their particular section includes a shelter high on the ridgeline on top of Peter’s Mountain. “Anytime we want to get equipment up there to maintain the shelter, it’s a real challenge,” Loose says.
At the time, the Heritage Rail Trail was right in the middle of developing. It had a lot of momentum, and that appealed to me. Ten miles were built, with about 10 to go. The trail was completed in 1999, so I jumped right in those final two years and had to manage a lot of the grants that had already been awarded, and coordinate the grand opening and managing of contracts to finish the last two phases. It was an exciting time to join the project.
What has made the Heritage Rail-Trail such a successful attraction?
A consultant once told us that for a trail to be successful, it has to be constantly interesting and continually serene. I think that’s really what attracts people to the Heritage Rail Trail, besides the fact the trail was built and is maintained to extremely high standards. Visitors know when they come to the Heritage Rail Trails that they’re going to have a quality experience.
Do you have any other current trail projects underway?
We have two projects right now to extend the Heritage Rail Trail. One is an approximately 5.5-mile extension going north from York, Pa., that will connect to John Rudy County Park, which has soccer fields, running courses, a playground and volleyball courts. It’s a very active recreation spot, so it’s a great connection for the trail. And then the other extension is following an old trolley corridor, about 16.5 miles long. It’s owned by the electric utility, and the county has an agreement that permits development of a recreational trail in the corridor. The first phases of construction are complete on both of these projects—about a mile and a half on the northern end, and two small sections of the Hanover Trolley Trail are complete.
How long will it take to have these extensions fully developed and connected?
They move as fast as funding. Usually what happens when we have two projects going is that we alternate years for construction. Generally speaking, I would give us another three to four years for the northern extension to John Rudy County Park to reach completion, and probably five to six years for the Hanover Trolley Trail.
Where do you find most of your trail funding?
We conducted a five-year capital campaign that’s still ongoing, and we were able to raise approximately $1.5 million. This local money serves as match money to leverage state and federal grants. The cost of trails has continued to escalate, just like everything else. Sometimes it makes trail development frustratingly slow, but as along as we can produce a mile here and a mile there, it keeps us happy. And it keeps our funders happy—they like to see results.
What are you most proud of in your time at the York County Rail Trail Authority?
I would have to say that for myself and the Rail Trail Authority, we’re all really proud of the Heritage Rail Trail County Park. I think we’re most proud that we had so much support from our residents, all during construction. Early on, some people were skeptical, and they didn’t know what the trail would look like or who would use it. But as sections of the Heritage Rail Trail were complete, community support grew and gave us the momentum to finish the trail.