By Rich Place

The Erie Cattaraugus Rail Trail (ECRT) last week officially celebrated the signing of a 49-year rail banking agreement with the Buffalo Pittsburgh Railroad that paves the way to construct a multi-use trail on 27 miles of former rail line.

The trail, a section of which is already open as the Springville Pop Warner Rail Trail in Springville, will span from the town of Ashford in Cattaraugus County to Orchard Park and also connects the towns of Aurora, Colden and Concord.

“This means that this iconic 27-mile corridor in the Western New York Southern Tier is ours to preserve and protect as a natural resource for the next 50 years plus,” said Beth Lasky, communications chair with ECRT, about the agreement during a press conference held Aug. 16.

“We’re so pleased to reach an agreement with the Erie County Rail Trail organization,” stated B&PRR marketing director Kevin Bowser in a press release. “They value our railroad history, the natural attributes of the corridor and the outstanding recreation and economic potential the trail will bring to the community. We support their efforts to create this trail.”

The press conference, held at the historic Orchard Park rail depot, included a handful of local government officials who all praised the agreement and the work done on the trail so far.

Deb Fenn, co-chair of the ECRT group, told the Springville Times the rail banking agreement is a federal statute that dictates these old rail corridors can be preserved and maintained for an alternative use. This agreement also has five additional 10-year options.

“They don’t want to break these corridors up,” she said. “So it’s totally ours for the next 100 years to develop.”

Although ECRT officials for a decade have envisioned a trail connecting Western New York communities, this agreement marks the beginning of the next chapter for the organization when it comes to making it a reality in area communities.

“What our hope is, is each individual municipality will work with us on the design and construction and decide on uses for their section of trail,” Fenn said. “We need community involvement and town supervisors and boards to work with us on this.”

Fenn admitted some town officials and residents located near the trail itself do have concerns that can be addressed through meetings.

“One prominent reason, which happens anytime a trail is built, is there are people who live on the corridor who have concerns with privacy and safety,” she said. “Anytime a trail is built those are two concerns anyone has.”

She said those concerns can be mitigated with proper design, all of which can be discussed at upcoming meetings.

“Trails like these are quiet economic generators,” explained Gary Willert, the other co-chair for ECRT, in a press release. “Research shows that homes and property values are likely to increase the closer they are to the trail. We hope the trail will promote economic growth and foster strong community connections while preserving the unique character of our quaint towns and villages.”

Following the signing of the agreement, community engagement is the next step in the process, Fenn said. Meetings will start first with the approximately 6,000 supporters of the trail already and then extend to the general public in these municipalities.

“We want to build this so they will like it,” Fenn said. “It really behooves them to work with us on this.” The remaining trail will be built in sections as community meetings are held, funding is secured and a visioning plan is complete.

The 1.7-mile section of the trail already accessible in Springville was also celebrated at the meeting nearly two years after it officially opened in September 2016.

Senator Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, who was present at that ribbon cutting, commented during the press conference last week about Springville’s role in the upcoming design of future sections of the trail.

“I know it’s done wonderful things in that community and I think it’s really a great illustration of what we can do for the other 25 miles or so,” he said.

Fenn credited Springville Mayor Bill Krebs with spearheading the initial right-of-entry agreement for that section while ECRT was negotiating the rail banking agreement. The Springville section of trail was funded, in part, by a grant from the Springville-Griffith Institute Community Educational Foundation.

At the press conference last week, Mayor Krebs listed a handful of northern Erie County communities like Newstead and Clarence — as well as the Pat McGee Trail in Cattaraugus County — where the rail-trail mentality has already been developed and executed.

“They all have rail-trails. Why not Orchard Park? Why not Aurora? Why not Colden? Why not Concord? And why not the town of Ashford?” he said. “We can do it and we should do it. Our communities, our towns, are just as competitive as those other towns to the north that really love their trails and use them. They can work down here, too.”