Im sitting at Craig Della Pennas dining room at his home on Chestnut Street in Florence and he is setting me straight, not with opinion, but with facts, figures and a non-stop narrative.
Since it was first built in the 1980s, Ive believed that the Northampton Bike Path was a possible misuse of a priceless resource - paving over the railroad right of way to use at most only seven months a year for bicycling, walking and running.
Why not retain it for a more valuable future use as a medium for moving large numbers of people year round, just like the railroads used to do?
But that is precisely the point of the rail-trail movement, argues Della Penna, the New England representative of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Its goal is not to forestall any future for railroads, but to upgrade and enhance long-abandoned corridors for current recreational use and to preserve them for future contingencies.
So now I feel much better about the rail-trail or bike path concept, because Della Penna has much more knowledge and experience in this area than I have.
A 51-year-old native of Holyoke, Della Penna spent much of his professional life working for the Pinsly Railroad Co., a successful short-line operation now based in Westfield. Steeped in the lore and realities of railroads, Della Penna says simply: I know how to make a railroad work. Two important elements are at work for a railroad, he explains: it has to make money and it needs to move heavy, bulky materials, not people, especially in low-density population regions like western New England.
It is no mystery why so many traditional industries quit New England cities and towns, he says. That trend simply followed closely on the heels of the abandonment of rail service by the large rail operators, or was it the other way around? In the end, we have lost both industry and railroads.
And as this trend accelerated in all parts of the country, the high-water mark for railroads with some 300,000 miles of corridor in the early 1900s has shrunk to some 120,000 miles of active railroad operations, according to Della Penna.
The difference, of course, consists of abandoned roadbeds, some of them forever erased by washouts or floods, construction projects and various kinds of development, or merely wasting away from disuse.
Yet, as Della Penna notes with pride, the rail-trail movement of the last 20 years has returned to productive use through 2,000 projects nearly 13,000 miles of corridor throughout the country, with another 18,000 miles of old rights of way potentially available for similar reuse.
When he visits with local public officials and others about unused railbed Della Pennas message is that abandoned corridors are a detriment, you are cheating your community. Bike paths or rail trails that fix up the corridor are an effective way of combating the blight that otherwise takes hold.
While the Northampton Bike Path from Look Park to Stoddard Street, constructed in tandem with a sewer line project, was an early example of rail corridor reuse, the first project was proposed as early in 1963 west of Chicago and finally opened in 1973 as the Illinois Prairie PATH.
Meanwhile, by 1986, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) had come into being, to act as a clearing house for rail-trail projects by selling the idea to communities and providing technical assistance, especially helping states and local governments tap into the abundant federal funds that had become available. At the time only about 2,000 miles of roadbeds had been developed.
Serious momentum was gained about the same time with the major involvement of the federal government and the earmarking of two percent of total transportation dollars for banking rail corridors and keeping the chain of title to the right of way intact, he says. The money is used to acquire dead corridors and to construct trails. Says Della Penna, the trails can become railroads very easily should that be deemed desirable in the future.
Della Penna insists we never come out against viable railroad resurrection projects, yet he acknowledges that the constituency and public support for the rail trails and bike paths is formidable.
Della Pennas own involvement in the rail-trail religion began in 1994 while he was still working for the short-line railroad and a publisher of topographical maps - New England Cartographics - asked him to compile an inventory of abandoned rail corridors that had been converted to bike paths. The project tapped into his passion for railroad history, so he undertook - on a bike - a highly detailed study of the 26 regional trails open at the time, identifying every mill, junction, tunnel, and bridge along the trails, which subsequently emerged as a book titled the, Great Rail-Trails of the Northeast, which is now out of print, but available in some used book stores. Over time that title was followed by two other regional guide books about rail-trails in New York and New Jersey. Fruits of his intensive research reside in his computer, which stores some 4,000 pictures of what he has turned up in his rail-trail travels.
After attending a public meeting in Southampton at which what he regarded as inaccuracies and misconceptions were introduced about a rail trail proposal there, Della Penna decided to develop a slide lecture series, even though he had no experience as a speaker. His first foray, in 1996, was to Hatfield where only six people turned out.
In 1998, Della Penna joined the RTC as a part-time representative with the task of going to communities that were debating the idea of a rail trail and meeting with citizens who were fearful about its impact.
By 2000, Della Penna had become the full-time New England field representative for the Conservancy, and a year later he was cited by The Ride Magazine as the most effective advocate for bicycle and rail trail issues in the eastern U.S. He has delivered more than 500 lectures.
Today there are 16 rail trails in Massachusetts with another 60 projects in the works, he says.
As the bike trails become more popular, federal involvement and funding grew apace. Between 1990 and 2000 some $400 million was spent on rail-trail acquisition and construction, compared to some $40 million during the previous 90 years.
Within the next 15 years, Della Penna predicts there will be continuous rail-trail connection between Northampton and Boston, and even sooner, a similar route from Northampton to New Haven - except for one gap in Southampton.
Working from his home two days a week, Della Penna also travels about 1,000 miles a week meeting with federal, state and local officials, trail opponents and speaking at public hearings.
Della Penna and his wife, Kathy, could not live any closer to a former railroad right of way. Their home, dubbed the Sugar Maple Trailside Inn, a bed and breakfast accommodation, is at the southwest corner of the bike path where it crosses Chestnut Street in Florence. [www.sugar-maple-inn.com]
Kathy and I are not here by accident, he says, of the home they bought two years ago, and which they have renovated extensively, including introducing such touches as a bike motif weathervane atop their home and decorating the interior walls with railroad images and maps of rail lines. Now we are home forever, he declares.
They had lived for many years in Agawam, but when the Chestnut Street house, which hugs the Bike Path, came on the market they joined a bidding war and came out the winner, although the required renovation of the property was both extensive and expensive. Still, says Della Penna, he feels they lucked out. We wanted to live some place with a great downtown, such as Northampton and Florence.
The future of America lies in places like this, not all sprawled out, Della Penna says. This is the place to be.