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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

63 Mile Long Rail Trail A Big Hit

By George Osgood--Star Gazette Wellsboro Bureau

WELLSBORO -- A state survey shows what lots of local folks already knew: People who use the Pine Creek Rail-Trail love it.

And now, with the opening of the section from Wellsboro Junction to Ansonia, there's even more to love.

"It's terrific," said Jude Molloy of Camp Hill, who biked the new section, which opened Sept. 12 and increased the trail's length to nearly 63 miles, one of the longest rail-trail conversions in Pennsylvania. "I have walked or ridden my bike over most of the whole trail, and this might be the best part. It's not dramatic, like the canyon, but the nice thing is that the scenery changes.

"Part of it is woods and a lot of it is wetland," he said. "You see the ridges, different wildlife and different plants. Different birds, especially. Then, when you come to Ansonia, you're right in the canyon, so that's another change. I think it's great that they finally got it open."

In June 1988, Conrail notified the Lycoming County Planning Commission that the railroad planned to abandon the tracks from Wellsboro to Jersey Shore, and the move to create a rail-trail started. In July 1990, the Pennsylvania House and Senate passed legislation that allowed the state to buy the rail bed for $1. Construction of the first section, from Ansonia 17 miles to Blackwell, began in 1995, and that first stretch opened to recreational use in August 1996.

In June 2001, a 23-mile-long section from Rattlesnake Rock, south of Blackwell, to Waterville opened. The run from Waterville to the White Tail trailhead was ready in the fall of 2005, and the southernmost piece of the trail, ending in Jersey Shore, opened in the summer of 2006.

It has been a hit from the start. State models, based on automatic counter information and other data, show that 125,000 people used the Pine Creek Rail-Trail in 2006. Few were disappointed. Lots of them saw otters, eagles, deer and bears. Rattlesnakes, too.

Trail cooperation envied
"It has been a couple of years, but we have been here before," said Gordon Sneath of Lancaster, hiking the trail near Ansonia with wife Romaine. "It's beautiful. The community is very fortunate to have it. I know it took a lot of people working together to accomplish this.

"In our county, Norfolk Southern (Railroad) is trying to abandon a rail line, and there's a movement to turn that into a rail-trail," he said. "But people can't agree on it. The townships want to do one thing, and the county commissioners want to do something else and the property owners along the railroad line want another thing. People are afraid of litter and damage to the environment. But the people who use these trails don't litter. Anyway, it's going nowhere."

Jason Newswanger, a Berks County dairy farmer, knew exactly where he was going: South from Ansonia to Blackwell, towing daughters Katelyn, 3 and Kyla, 15 months, in a cute kiddie-cart behind his bicycle.

"It won't be too hard to pull. It's all downhill," he said of the trail's minimal grade. "Going down through the canyon is really nice. We enjoy coming here. It's hard to leave work. But we decided to sneak off for a day or two. It's well worth it."

Users give trail top marks
Other users agree. According to the state's survey, released earlier this month, 96 percent of users rated trail maintenance as good or excellent; 92 percent of the more than 1,000 respondents graded trail security as good or excellent and 96 percent approved of trail cleanliness.

"You don't see any litter," said Carrie Ault of Reading. "I have been here a dozen times over the years, probably, and I haven't even seen a candy wrapper. People really take care of this place. With all the stuff you see in the cities, it restores your faith.

"To tell you the truth, I haven't been on the new section yet," the operating room nurse said. "I just got here. But I'm looking forward to (bicycling) it. Maybe tomorrow."

Not bad for a freebie.

"Using the trail is free," said Carl Burke of Lewisburg. "But you can't really put a price on it. It's a very special place. I'm surprised it doesn't get even more use. It's super."

And almost done. Future plans call for extending the rail-trail from Wellsboro Junction three miles south to Wellsboro. Through 2006, construction along the 63 miles of trail cost $8.25 million, according to the state survey. Building a bridge to carry the trail over Route 287 will cost an estimated $2.3 million.

But state estimates reveal that trail users pump more than $5.5 million a year into the regional economy.

Of course, it's not about dollars.

"I come here several times a year, and I see something new every time," Ault said. "It's like a theme park without the crowds. And the theme is nature."

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