BROADWAY — In the past several weeks, the small town of Broadway, with a population of less than 4,000, has become a hot spot for elected officials visiting to learn more about a proposed linear park along a rail corridor spanning from the town to Front Royal.
On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., made a stop in Broadway during his three-day swing through the Shenandoah Valley to meet with local volunteers and leaders at the potential location for the rail trail’s southern terminus — Heritage Park.
Kaine said the last time he was in Broadway was in the early 2000s when he was either lieutenant governor or governor of Virginia.
When Kaine arrived Thursday, he was quick to share his excitement on the proposed rail-to-trail project.
“I’m a huge rail-to-trail person,” he said. “I am really excited to hear about this.”
While meeting at Heritage Park, just steps away from the rail corridor, Kaine heard from several rail-trail advocates, including Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission Chair Brandon Davis.
The conversation allowed Kaine to be brought up to speed on the rail trail developments and open a discussion on how he, as a U.S. Senator, can help make the project happen.
“I think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Davis said. “It’s going to tie together the heartbeat of so many communities.”
After hearing from other supporters, Kaine said he was happy to hear the rail-trail proposal had been extended from Strasburg to Front Royal, adding that it would show off the communities in a big way.
With the recent announcement that Gov. Ralph Northam reached an agreement with Norfolk Southern Railway to expand passenger rail to Southwest Virginia, Kaine said getting Norfolk Southern’s support for the rail trail could be reached with a similar agreement with the governor.
Davis said after studying the rail-trail proposal, he knows it’s feasible even without the results of the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s assessment.
With new information absorbed, Kaine said it wasn’t a matter of if the rail-trail project could happen, but when.
“I think it’s going to happen,” he said. “The timing is right as the stars are aligning right now.”
Of course, one of the hurdles to getting the project going is Norfolk Southern, which owns the stretch of unused track. According to advocates involved with the project, conversations have begun with the railroad company. Attempts to speak with representatives of Norfolk Southern for this article were unsuccessful.
With six months left before the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s deadline to present its assessment to the chairs of the House Committee on Appropriations and Senate Committee on Finance and Appropriations, Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, said the trail effort appeared to be moving forward.
Wilt, who put the effort to make the rail trail happen on the fast track by introducing the budget amendment for the feasibility study during the 2020 General Assembly special session, resides in the area that will become the southern terminus if approved and developed. With the opportunity of bringing a tourism element to the town, one word that could sum up Wilt’s feelings is “excitement.”
“For Broadway, it’s an exciting time for them. Just look at the potential,” he said.
Visiting Broadway’s Heritage Park late last month, Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, smiled as he surveyed the scene before boarding a bus for a driving tour of a portion of the proposed trail. Having been involved with plenty of rail-to-trail projects in the past, Hanger also sees the economic potential if the latest rail-to-trail in the state comes to fruition.
He cited Damascus, a small town at the foot of Whitetop Mountain in Southwest Virginia, as one of the success stories. Now known as a cycling and outdoors mecca, the town is the eastern trailhead for the famed Creeper Trail — a 35-mile former railway that runs downhill before beginning a slow rise into the town of Abingdon on the Interstate 81 corridor.
“They’re all good economic engines,” Hanger said. “This one, ideally, would tie in with Seven Bends (State Park in Woodstock), so one of the options for this would be to become part of the state parks system, but it might work better if it’s just another nonprofit entity setup to manage.”
The Creeper Trail, which officially opened in 1987, is a public-private partnership. Half the trail runs on federal land maintained by the U.S. Forest Service and local governments with the Virginia Creeper Trail Conservancy, a nonprofit volunteer organization, dedicated to maintenance and preservation of the corridor.
Out of the communities that will be connected through the rail trail, Broadway will be one of two localities to potentially see the most impact due to it being a starting or ending point for visitors.
Broadway Town Manager Kyle O’Brien said the impact will be “very far-reaching” and will be a boon to nearly every industry in the town.
“It would be one of the most significant things to happen in the town,” he said.
According to data from the United States Census Bureau, Broadway had a population of roughly 3,900 people in 2019. The town issues more than 100 business licenses, O’Brien said, and more will be issued if the rail trail comes to fruition.
O’Brien said the town can expect to see numerous different things coming to the area, such as recreational businesses, bicycle shops, retail stores and overnight stay accommodations.
“It’s going to have an impact on everything in the town, in a good way,” he said. “It will change Broadway, not its character but a positive impact.”
Both Wilt and O’Brien said support for the rail trail has been growing since the budget amendment was approved in 2020.
In the last four months, several localities that will be connected by the rail trail passed resolutions in support, including Shenandoah County, Broadway, Mount Jackson and Woodstock.
O’Brien said the Department of Conservation and Recreation has been working hard on the feasibility study, with Wilt adding there had been four listening sessions held with DCR and various interest groups and supporters to develop the vision of the rail trail.
Wilt said the Virginia Department of Transportation will launch a metro quest survey to collect public input from residents on their thoughts on the rail trail as progress moves forward.
“From all indications, it’s 100% excitement and 100% participation,” Wilt said. “It’s all the way through from everybody.”
O’Brien said the town owns 4 acres of undeveloped land located across from Heritage Park that is typically used for parking.
Not only will the rail trail impact Broadway, but the Shenandoah Valley as a whole, O’Brien said.
“These trails have proven they are a huge draw,” he said. “The Valley is already one of the prettiest places in the country and people can experience that. It opens up an area people know but gives a closer look at that beauty. It would be fantastic if it happens.”
Wilt said the rail trail will be a “win-win” for the town and its residents, not only for the increased revenue opportunities but for the additional foot traffic coming to the area as well.
“Right now, I’m just not seeing any roadblocks,” he said. “I think it’s on the positive all the way around.”
Hanger had the same assessment.
“Right now,” Hanger said, “we’re at a good place. I’m going to try to help prioritize this one. What is helpful always is to have advocates, different groups to help push for it. It seems like we got that going here. I’m excited about the potential to get this one up and going.”
One of the many advocates for the trail is Kyle Lawrence, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition, who used the word “unparalleled” plenty of times when talking about the trail’s potential.
The scope of the project?
The views riders and hikers will see?
“Unparalleled,” he said. “The Creeper [Trail] of course is a treasured trail. But because it’s mountainous, the landscapes are not as sweeping.”
Being in the Valley with the Blue Ridge to the east and the Appalachians to the west, the views offered along the stretch will be striking, he said.
“I think we are cautiously optimistic,” Lawrence said. “You have Rockingham County, Shenandoah County with full support from county administration and every town along the way involved. It’s really an unparalleled collaborative effort.”