A Potential Spark for the Three Notched Trail

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The Three Notched Trail is a proposed multi-use pathway extending from the Blue Ridge Tunnel in Afton to the City of Charlottesville

After over a decade of dreamy discussion around the idea of a 25-mile bike and pedestrian shared use path between Crozet and Charlottesville, a new grant opportunity has brought the project into sharp focus. In April, Albemarle County submitted an application for a $2 million RAISE grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. RAISE stands for Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity, and the $1.5 billion fund was created by last year’s federal infrastructure legislation.

“The application left the county’s desk [last month], headed to [Transportation Secretary] Pete Buttigieg,” said Allie Hill, a Rivanna Trails Foundation board member who is heading up what will be called the Three Notched Trail project. “The grant was discovered and submitted by the Community Development Department, which surprised me because usually we work with the trails and parks and greenways group. The county has shuffled its priorities and committed staff time to working with the consultants to move this project forward if we are successful in getting the grant.”

“I’m so excited to hear you say this today, this is going to make a lot of people out west very, very happy,” said White Hall District Board of Supervisors representative Ann Mallek at its April 6 meeting where the grant application was presented. “We’ve seen that little Nelson County, over 15 years, got multiple VDOT, planning, and execution grants, and just with sheer determination and doggedness got the [Blue Ridge] tunnel [project] done … so I have no doubt that bringing people here will really make this come to fruition. I look forward to supporting this wholeheartedly.”

A proposed Three Notched Trail would be part of a network of trails across Virginia.

The Three Notched Trail proposal covers the entire span from the tunnel through Crozet and into Charlottesville, and Hill wants to emphasize that the trail would not just be for the western part of the county. “We know that this will be great for all the people—moms with strollers, people who want to just be outside but not be with cars, people who want to get up to the Parkway, everyone,” said Hill. “We know that this is going to benefit every single Albemarle County resident, if not directly then from the impact the economics are going to bring and the visitors that are going to come spend time with families here.”

The requested RAISE grant would provide “planning” funding, as opposed to construction (“capital”) funding, in this phase, and would accomplish several crucial tasks. The county would use the funds to hire and collaborate with consultants to conduct a feasibility study to identify three potential alignments for the shared use path, conduct public outreach to determine and design the preferred alignment, and identify segments of the alignment that might be able to be constructed separately.

Location, Location

For most Crozet residents, the first question is ‘where would the trail go?’ “Route 250 is what everybody thinks of, because that’s what they know,” said Terri Miyamoto, president of the Crozet Trails Crew. “But next time you are on 250, take a look at the topography. There are a lot of ravines at the edge of the road and some pretty significant hills, and also if you follow a road like that then the trail has to cross every intersecting driveway and cross street.” These issues, along with the significant problem of acquiring rights-of-way from property owners along the route, will likely lead planners to consider novel alternatives.

Map showing the future Three Notched Trail study area, in the middle yellow section.

“The point of the feasibility study is to find the best location and not force the trail to go through anyone’s land who doesn’t want it,” said Hill. “One of the things we’ve talked about for trail placement is to potentially connect it with some stretches of railroad.” The state of Virginia recently acquired a long stretch of track owned by CSX, and the state is much more amenable to shared uses than CSX was. While it will remain an active line, it could provide the basis for a “Rails with Trails” project, as almost 200 trails have been built in the U.S. using the easement land running parallel to still-functional railroad tracks.

“I think there are six or eight trains a day [in Crozet], some of them coming through at night, some of them are just short Amtrak trains that are four cars long,” said Hill, “so it’s a pretty quiet corridor as far as railroad corridors go. Rails with trails are very popular now, nationally, because the benefit is that the land is owned by the government, so you don’t have to acquire as many private landowner permissions. Also, the railroad was built so as to minimize fuel usage, of course, so they picked the flattest locations. If you map the railroad from Charlottesville out to Crozet, it’s a steady one percent grade, which is much easier to bike and hike on.”

Trails aligned with railroad lines are typically built about 50 feet from the tracks with fencing or landscape buffers in between. Hill said the safety record of these trails is astounding, noting that in the U.S. since 1992, there have been only two accidents involving pedestrians on Rails with Trails, both of whom attempted to cross the tracks by going around the safety gates while wearing earbuds. Because the rail lines were often built before surrounding neighborhoods, there are many fewer vehicle crossings of the lines and, thus, the trails. 

“The railroad in this particular location is super close to 250 and all these other neighborhoods and connectors, which is great for people being able to access it,” said Hill. “I’m really excited about it. I’ve spoken with the Department of Rail and Public Transportation and the Virginia Rail Authority, and they’re open minded to it,” said Hill. “They say, ‘there are a lot of legal hurdles, but we like the idea.’”

While the railroad is an innovative potential use for some locations, it won’t work for all stretches—for instance, the high Mechums trestle over the Rt. 240/250 intersection. “The county is also looking at mapping existing utility easements, like for power lines or where there’s a sewer line between Sugar Hollow and Ragged Mountain, and there may be stretches that can be combined,” said Hill. “There also are county parks, or schools that are owned by the county, where if we could connect a lot of these segments that could minimize requests of landowners.”

A Pretty Penny

Using other Virginia trail projects as a guide, the county is trying to develop cost estimates for the Three Notched Trail, and the sums involved are non-trivial. “The Rivanna Trails Foundation has built 25-plus miles of trails in Charlottesville, but they’re mostly dirt paths, and those can be done with minimal amounts of money, hand-built bridges, etc.,” said Hill. “When you get to a project like this, where it can be used for alternative transportation, then the Department of Transportation often pays for these kinds of things, but then it’s built to roadway standards. 

“The Capital Trail [from Richmond to Williamsburg] is the model that we’re using,” Hill continued, “and it’s a 10-foot wide paved path, it’s got drainage ditches, it’s got bridges that are wide enough for two directions of traffic, signage, everything. It can even support a maintenance vehicle if need be. The Capital Trail when it was built cost a million dollars a mile.”

The proposed Three Notched Trail is named after the historic trail that extended from Richmond to the Shenandoah in colonial times, where trees were marked with three slashes to guide travelers.

Once the planning phase of the project is complete, county staff will identify funding opportunities such as state Transportation Alternative, Revenue Sharing, and Smart Scale grants, and future rounds of RAISE grants, to pay for construction. Hill said there are other models that could work as well. “What we could always do is to build it as a grassroots kind of effort and make it maybe not 10 feet wide, but something that’s like a crush-and-run gravel path and maintain it as a nonprofit,” she said. “We can find alternate methods if the VDOT path didn’t work.”

Rights of Way

Even after the trail is designed and funding sources secured, one remaining hurdle is property owners who refuse to allow a trail to cross their property, even on a distant edge of a large parcel. “Not everybody knows this, but our state has a recreational use statute that is basically a law that protects landowners,” said Hill, “so any landowner who allows people to use their private property for recreation, as long as there’s not extreme gross negligence, cannot be sued.”

As news of the potential Three Notched Trail spreads, Hill said she’s heard the first rumblings of resistance from residents, even though the route has not yet been determined. “But at the same time, we’ve had people saying, ‘Oh, I live in Crozet, I live in Ivy, take my land, I’ve got a T-junction you can use,’” she said. “I probably have a dozen people who are saying, ‘I want it to come through here. I want to be able to go out my back door and get on the trail. I want it for future property value.’”

Miyamoto said she senses the same change in outlook away from NIMBY-ism. “That attitude has been changing over the last decade or so, I think,” she said. “I do occasionally get notes from people who complain about people walking past their house on a trail. But more likely you’ll see in developments billboard signs that advertise ‘Close to a greenway,’ or I’ll get a letter from someone asking me ‘Can I get to the trail from this neighborhood?’ when they’re deciding whether to buy.”

Miyamoto also serves on the RTF board and has been consulted on the Three Notched Trail design and route. “I think that the role of the Crozet Trails Crew is advocacy, just keeping information out there and helping people in Crozet and being advocates as well,” she said. “But also making sure that the planners know where the existing Crozet Greenway is, what kinds of trails we have where, and what the future plans are—like, for example, in the Master Plan—for Crozet. The TNT should definitely connect with our existing trail network.”

Competition for the RAISE grant is fierce, and includes other Virginia locations such as a proposed “Boat Trail” through Newport News that has completed its design phase and now is requesting funding for construction. “I think the odds are not very good [for us],” said Miyamoto. “But what [the grant application] does do is, it gets all that information—letters of support and ideas and reasons why—all together in one place. So that will make it easier to go forward for others, since we’re doing the big bulk of the work here.”

While the motivations for building the Three Notched Trail are legion, from the physical and mental health of residents to biker and pedestrian safety and a positive effect on the local economy, Miyamoto believes that the environmental impact the trail could make outweighs them all.

“I think if we are not looking at how we change people’s hearts and minds about automotive traffic, we are never going to address our climate issues,” she said. “That is the number one issue that we as a society have to look at on a local level.” She considers the problem and its solutions holistically, as well. “Every time I ride my bike to the post office or to the library, there’s a parking space for somebody who can’t, right? The more people who use bikes or public transit, the more people we get out of constantly driving, and the better it is for the people who have to drive.”

The county should receive a decision on its RAISE grant application in August. For more details, see the Three Notched Trail website, www.threenotchedtrail.com. 

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Lisa Martin joined the Gazette in 2017 and writes about education and local government. She also writes in-depth pieces about division-wide education issues and broader investigative pieces on topics from recycling to development to living with wildlife. Her Coyotes in Crozet story won a 2017 Virginia Press Association “Best in Show” award for the Gazette. Martin has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, taught college for several years, and writes fiction and poetry. She co-authored a children’s trilogy about two adventuring cats, the Anton and Cecil series, which got rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and others.

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