Impacts of Rail-Trails: Economics

Many rail-trails have become destinations unto themselves. While Milwaukee Road trains no longer bring people to northern Idaho, the Route of the Hiawatha Trail does. It features breathtaking mountain scenery, 10 tunnels, and seven towering trestles. Built later than the other northern transcontinental routes, the railroad benefited from superior engineering but suffered from a lack of customers. It declared bankruptcy in 1977, and the last train ran in 1980. Twenty years later, this part of the line reopened as a trail. In 2019, it drew 60,000 visitors from all over the country and the world; local estimates credit it with bringing in $8 million in tourism revenue.

Railroad: Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad
Location: Adair, Idaho
Date: June 15, 1978
Credit: Victor Hand, Center for Railroad Photography & Art, Hand-MILW-67-065

Railroad workers in a track car inspect the Milwaukee Road main line with its towering steel trestles in Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains.
Trail: Route of the Hiawatha
Trail length: 15 miles
Date: June 24, 2021
Credit: Justin Franz, courtesy of the photographer

Cyclists roll down the Route of the Hiawatha Trail on the former
Milwaukee Road, crossing one tall steel trestle beneath another in
the background.


Property Values
Just as railroads helped build cities and towns, rail-trails spur development today. The Atlanta BeltLine is a greenway converted from part of a railroad that once looped the city, facilitating freight transfers on the outskirts rather than in the more congested downtown. As rail traffic moved to other routes in the late twentieth century, city planners began working to turn the rail line into a trail. Their success has driven up property values, making the area less affordable for some long-time residents. The challenge is a common one for urban redevelopment, and it can test the long-term planning for accessible transportation projects.

Railroad: Southern Railway
Location: Atlanta, Georgia
Date: c. 1960
Credit: T.A. Whitworth, U.S. President’s Railroad Commission Photographs #5003
P. Kheel Center for Labor Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library

Tracks lead north along an industrial line towards the Irwin Street crossing in Atlanta, Georgia, c. 1960.
Trail: Atlanta BeltLine
Trail length: 22 miles
Date: November 26, 2021
Credit: David Lester, courtesy of the photographer

Pedestrians enjoy a sunny Friday afternoon along the Atlanta BeltLine where new developments are a constant project.

Caption: Route of the Hiawatha (detail), June 24, 2021. Photograph by Justin Franz

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