Smith River Trail gets federal grant

August 1, 2005

Bulletin Staff Writer

A $400,000 federal grant has been approved to launch a hiking and biking trail along the Smith River in Henry County.

Ninth District U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Abingdon, announced Saturday that the funds were included in the transportation bill, which Congress passed last week.

The Smith River Trail will lead from Philpott Dam, through Bassett and Fieldale and end in Martinsville, he said. There, it will connect with a trail in the city which previously received federal funds, he added.

The new grant funds will be used for the first phase of the Smith River Trail, which is the construction of a 3-4-mile trail on the abandoned Dick and Willie rail line from Fieldale, along the Smith River, Boucher said.

The rail line follows the river to Koehler, where it breaks away from the river and follows the rail line to the city, he said.

Boucher said county officials are discussing purchasing the abandoned rail line with Norfolk Southern representatives. Grant funds will be used to buy the railroad rights of way, he added.

While it will be up to the county to decide how to spend the money, he said remaining funds could be used for design and engineering work and construction of a Fieldale trailhead along the rail line.

Additional plans call for construction of a trailhead at the Fieldale Ballpark, which recently was acquired by the county, Boucher said. Trailheads typically include parking, restrooms, picnic tables and bicycle racks, he added.

Several access points to the river also will be constructed to enable canoeing along the waterway.

Rail-to-trail projects usually involve removing the rail lines in the 15-20-foot right of way and leaving the cinder path. The cinders become finer the more the path is used, the congressman said.

The trails are designed for walkers, cyclists, horseback riders and cross-country skiers in the winter, he said. No motorized vehicles, such as scooters and motorcycles, are allowed.

They also are designed to increase tourism in the area, Boucher said.

"The development of the Smith River Trail will breathe new life into the tourism economy of Henry County and will attract other forms of economic development. Much like the Virginia Creeper Trail in Washington County, the Smith River Trail has the potential to create new jobs and new opportunities for the residents of Henry County," he said.

The Virginia Creeper Trail has turned the town of Damascus into a tourist destination, he said, adding that it did not happen overnight. Development of the trail began in the 1970s, he said.

"Rail trails really work in my district," Boucher said. For instance, the New River Trail State Park between Galax and Pulaski, with a branch in Fries, attracts more than 200,000 visits a year, he said.

Trails also are being developed in Craig County and Tazwell County, he added.

Tourism has been growing at 15 percent a year, he said, calling that "impressive" growth that has been sustained over several years.

The $400,000 grant will be spread over five years, Boucher said. Typically, he said, localities use the first funds to get a low-interest loan for the entire grant amount. The loan would be repaid as grant funds are meted out by the Virginia Department of Transportation, he said.

The $400,000 will not cover all the project's costs, Boucher said. He suggested that Henry County and The Harvest Foundation might contribute to the project and more federal funds could be sought.

The trail grew out of a Harvest Foundation grant to the Southern Environmental Law Center to look at the area's assets and recommend how they could enhance tourism efforts, Boucher said. The center's study recommended the Smith River Trail, and Boucher pledged to help with the project.

Such trails sometimes are managed by an authority or, in the case of the Virginia Creeper Trail, the towns acquired the property and run the trail, Boucher said.

Locally, he said Bassett, Fieldale and Martinsville might partner with Henry County and possibly The Harvest Foundation on the project.

"I'll work with the group ... to smooth out the rough edges," he added.


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