Local leaders are close to getting the state’s approval to buy the land they need to extend the Chief Ladiga Trail into downtown Anniston, Mayor Jack Draper said last week.
“We hope to have that within the next two or three weeks,” Draper said.
Draper and other local officials have hinted in recent days that they’re close to a breakthrough on extending the 33-mile hiking-and-biking trail for another 7 miles, a project that’s been in the city’s sights for years.
Built on an abandoned railroad bed, the Ladiga runs from the outskirts of Anniston through Jacksonville and Piedmont to the Georgia line, where it connects with the even longer Silver Comet Trail. The trail draws a steady stream of cyclists — but it doesn’t run through the one Calhoun County town that calls itself “Bike City.”
A 7-mile extension would take the trail all the way to Anniston’s multimodal center, the train and bus station where city leaders hope out-of-town cyclists someday will be able to unload their bikes for the ride to Coldwater Mountain, home to well-known mountain bike trails.
That final 7 miles, though, has proven tough to develop. The city picked up $512,000 in federal money in 2014 to use in buying rail bed in town — most of which is owned by the Anniston Water Works and Sewer Board and by Norfolk Southern. By 2017, local officials were sifting through early land records and beginning negotiations to buy.
Now city officials say a request for permission to buy the land is on its way to the Alabama Department of Transportation for approval.
“We need administrative approval from ALDOT and we’ve addressed everything within their protocols,” city planner Toby Bennington said.
Draper announced earlier this year that a breakthrough in the project was near and that construction on a bike trail might begin as early as 2020. Then and now, Draper cited complicated legal work as the reason the project has taken so long — though he and other officials are reluctant to talk in detail about what issues were in contention.
Veterans of other rail-to-trail projects say acquiring land once owned by railroad companies is a process rife with legal complications.
“I was a young man when I started this,” said Stan Bales, a recreation planner for the Bureau of Land Management. “I’m not young anymore.”
Bales was an early advocate for the Bizz Johnson Rail Trail, a 25-mile hiking trail in northern California. He first began working on the project in the 1970s. It took the bureau 10 years to acquire the land. Even though much of the railway had been unused for 20 years, he said, no one had filed the paperwork to declare it legally abandoned. Timber companies owned part of the land, and the rise and fall in timber prices made negotiations more complicated.
“You have to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again,” Bales said. “In some cases the railroad still owns the rail bed. Sometimes it reverts to the earlier owners. You have to deal with them all.”
Kelly Pack, director of trail development for the nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, said projects in cities typically come with their own complications, such as easements that allow utilities to run lines under a rail line.
Rail-to-trail organizations often struggle for funds, she said, or they use federal funding that has regulatory strings attached.
“There are environmental requirements, so that adds another layer,” she said.
Attempts to reach officials of ALDOT and Norfolk Southern were not successful last week. Ed Turner, general director of the Anniston Water Works and Sewer Board, said his organization is ready to hand over its portion of the trail. Though he didn’t name a price, he said the board would recoup the costs it sunk into the land.
Turner said he doesn’t know what details Draper has been hammering out in recent weeks.
“I know that he’s just about at his wits’ end trying to dot the i’s and cross the t’s,” he said.