Trail Management Structures in PA

June 3, 2021By: Zhenya Nalywayko
PEC Blog

Zhenya Nalywayko, Program Coordinator

Whenever a new trail project is considered, questions immediately arise about who will own the trail, who will maintain it, and who will be liable for it. When that trail passes through multiple municipalities, which is very common in the state of Pennsylvania, finding the answers to these basic questions can become a major stumbling block to the project’s success. Folks in Chester County are wrestling with these questions as they consider an exciting Circuit Trail opportunity known as the Devault Trail.

All trails have a lifespan, and without ongoing upkeep, that lifespan can be short. To ensure the Devault Trail lives a long life, the Transportation Management Association of Chester County (TMACC) is proposing the creation of a trail management structure alongside the physical development of the trail. For the last few months, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council has been supporting the effort by evaluating different types of trail management structures that currently exist across Pennsylvania. We have found that there are three main types of structures managing trails in Pennsylvania:

  • County-Level Authorities
  • Intergovernmental Agreements
  • Nonprofit Associations

Constructing a rail trail. Photo courtesy of the Circuit Trails.

County-level authorities, such as the Cambria County Conservation and Recreation Authority or the Lackawanna Heritage Valley Authority are the most common type of structure managing trails in this state. Created by a County Board of Commissioners – who also have the power to appoint authority boards – county-level authorities operate similarly to other types of authorities, such as water, sewer, or parking authorities. These structures bring in money from a variety of sources, including grants, county hotel taxes, the Marcellus Shale fund, natural gas impact fees, visitors bureaus, and even federal sources like the CARES Act. In most cases, capital projects – including trail maintenance, expansion, and construction of new trails – are usually grant funded. Other sources of funding tend to go toward salaries and administrative expenses. While county-level authorities are somewhat better at securing funding and have connections to political resources, most do not have a means to generate a steady stream of revenue to support their operating costs, making it difficult for them to remain financially stable and to afford staff members.

Intergovernmental agreements (IGA), such as that governing the Ironton Rail Trail, are smaller structures created by an agreement among municipalities to oversee development and/or maintenance of a trail or other shared piece of infrastructure or resource. IGAs governing trails are typically formed when one municipality purchases a right of way and then subdivides and deeds it out to neighboring municipalities, or when several municipalities come together to purchase a right of way. IGAs are staffed by the municipalities involved, so all funding goes toward trail development, expansion, and/or maintenance. Funding typically comes from grants, township budgets (including manpower, services, and machinery), and fundraisers. As a result, IGAs are nimbler and less costly than county-level authorities. This also makes them more suited to developing and maintaining “one-off” corridors, where attention, funding, and manpower can be focused on the right of way initially purchased. IGAs are less suited toward trail networks, as they lack the organization and dedicated manpower of a county-level agreement or non-profit association.

The Cynwyd Heritage Trail. Photo courtesy of the Circuit Trails.

Nonprofit associations, like the Capital Area Greenbelt Association and Regional Trails Corporation, are cooperative efforts including residents/community groups, municipalities, and state and federal agencies with the shared goal of developing and maintaining trails. Like county-level authorities, capital projects are grant-funded, while salaries and administrative expenses come from a variety of sources including nonprofit membership fees, fundraisers, and donations. The nonprofit associations listed above are loose, flexible, and have decentralized oversight over often large areas, which in some cases lowers the cost of managing vast trail networks. On the other hand, organizing such complex entities with multiple stakeholders and limited resources can be difficult, as can acquiring land and maintaining ownership.

Asphalt trails only last so long. Without a mechanism for maintenance in place, trails reach a point of no return when they become unusable.

As we have learned, there are a variety of ways to manage trails, each with their own pros and cons. Ultimately, it will be up to the community to decide what the best method for maintaining the Devault Trail will be. Continued research and ongoing conversations will be needed to determine how the Devault Trail will be maintained in the future, but the most important thing is that a method for long-term maintenance is enacted. Asphalt trails only last so long. Without a mechanism for maintenance in place, trails reach a point of no return when they become unusable, and where the cost of restoration could be more expensive than building a new trail. What happens then?

PEC is excited to continue working with TMACC, Charlestown Township, and community members to figure out the right trail management structure for the Devault Trail. While there are plenty of options, the trail project sponsors need to decide what shoe fits best for them and their specific Interests. PEC will present the options discussed above to local residents, leaders, and other stakeholders at the next public meeting on June 15th at 7:00 pm. Register here.

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