National Park Service & Morgan County Commissioners differ on Rail Trail plans
by Geoff Fox
The National Park Service has chosen Alternative C as their preferred alternative for the extension of the Western Maryland Rail Trail between Pearre, Md. and Paw Paw. W. Va.
The Morgan County Commissioners, however, have backed another of the three alternatives under consideration.
The plans were outlined at public meetings in Hancock on May 16 and Paw Paw on May 17.
Alternative A would be a “no action” alternative. This would simply continue present park management and operations with no change in existing conditions.
Alternative B would be to extend the Rail Trail from Pearre to Paw Paw. The Park Service would construct a paved trail, from 8 ft. to 10 ft. wide, along the former Western Maryland Railroad bed through Maryland and West Virginia.
The project would also restore drainage, improve bridges and Kessler Tunnel, improve or bypass Stickpile Tunnel, bypass Indigo Tunnel using the C&O Canal towpath, and remove or remediate hazardous materials.
A new parking area in Little Orleans near Fifteen Mile Creek would also be part of Alternative B. Public access parking would be expanded at the C&O Canal Historic Park at the Paw Paw Tunnel.
Signed and marked road crossings, educational opportunities and various trail amenities would be added.
There are options when it comes to Alternative B where Stickpile Tunnel is involved.
Option #1 would see construction through Stickpile Tunnel to allow a paved trail through it as well as permitting emergency vehicles and equipment.
Option #2 has a closure of the tunnel with a bypass. The closure would be to avoid bats and the spread of White Nose Syndrome.
For the bypass, a mile-long detour, boardwalk-style bridge would be constructed. The wooden bridge might have a paved path over it. There would be a gentle slope to the bridge to accommodate wheelchairs and the disabled.
The bridge would go from the Rail Trail across to the C&O Canal towpath with another bridge connecting back to the trail after the tunnel.
Another part of the option is using Kasecamp Road as a year-round route to bypass the tunnel during interim closure.
Option #3 would be seasonal closure. This would impose a time of year in an attempt to limit exposure to White Nose Syndrome for the bats.
Stickpile Tunnel would have the trail built through it, but would have a seasonal closing and bypass. The closure would be from September to May, the period in which bats tend to hibernate.
Alternative C would expand the Rail Trail from Pearre to the Stickpile Tunnel and from Paw Paw to the Potomac River Bridge #5.
Despite previous reports, Alternative C would still take the trail through the Doe Gully area of Morgan County.
Under Alternative C, the trail would extend from Pearre, across Sidling Hill Creek, bypass Indigo Tunnel using the C&O Canal towpath, and continue through Doe Gully in West Virginia before ending near the east opening of the Stickpile Tunnel.
Another section of trail would be constructed from the railway bridge over the canal near the C&O Canal Historic Park and Paw Paw Tunnel public access to Potomac River Bridge #5.
Alternative C proposes no work between the east opening to Stickpile Tunnel and the bridge. The proposed length of the trail would be 8.1 miles under this plan.
Maintenance would be done by Maryland, but an agreement would have to be made.
Park Service likes C
Chris Stubbs, Chief of Resources at the C&O Canal, said they support Alternative C because it promotes the best balance of protecting the environment and access to visitors.
Stubbs said there was also the possibility of a paved bicycle trail from the Paw Paw Tunnel parking area to the Town of Paw Paw.
White Nose Syndrome is the main reason that NPS wants to avoid the tunnels. The reason for the closures or bypassing of the tunnels is that there is the chance that people could come in contact with the fungus that carries the disease and spread it to the bats.
There has been documentation of federally or state-protected bats and animals, such as the Eastern Small-footed Bat, Indiana Bat, and Allegheny Woodrat, found within the tunnels.
Commissioners back B
At their Thursday, May 17 meeting, the Morgan County Commissioners endorsed Alternative B, as it provides for constructing a continuous trail to Paw Paw.
Before their resolution, the commissioners heard from Rail Trail supporter Bert Lustig of Berkeley Springs, who favored Alternative B.
Lustig discussed the Park Service’s environmental assessment of the proposed project. He said Indigo Tunnel, one of the tunnels the new trail was going to run through, is closed off and it's doubtful any human will enter again.
A public comment period about the Rail Trail alternatives will continue through June 1.
Comments may be mailed to National Park Service, Denver Service Center – Transportation Division, CHOH WMRT EA Planning Team, 12759 West Alameda Parkway, P.O. Box 25287, Denver Colorado, 80225.
After the comments are reviewed and a decision is made, work on the extension should begin as soon as this summer.
Designs for the trail are currently being worked on.