Plans for the Ecusta Trail are rapidly progressing as fundraising, design, engineering and preparation for construction are underway to bring the 19-mile rail-to-trail project closer to reality.
Work to remove the rails and crossties along the rail corridor is already nearing completion, and last month the Henderson County Board of Commissioners approved contracting with Asheville firm Vaughn & Melton to complete the planning, design and engineering for the first six and a half miles of trail from downtown Hendersonville to the French Broad River in Horseshoe.
“It is definitely moving faster than we could have possibly projected,” said Chris Burns, one of the founding members of the Friends of the Ecusta Trail group. “The contractors that the railroad hired to remove the track and the crossties, they are leaving the corridor in much, much, much better shape than what we ever thought it was going to be left. We did not think that it was going to be walkable based on what we were being told. And it’s not only walkable, you can ride it on a mountain bike.”
While the crossties and rails are being removed, Conserving Carolina is encouraging folks not to walk or bike on the rail corridor as it is an active construction site.
However, once that work is complete, the gravel path will be walkable on the Henderson County side in the interim between then and when construction to finish the paved path begins.
Burns said Henderson County is working to put up signage to encourage visitors to keep their dogs on a leash and discourage them from walking over any railroad trestles, as engineering has not yet begun to determine the safety of the trestles.
Much of this momentum has been helped by recent funding from federal and state grants, the new state budget and local organizations.
In November, North Carolina legislators allocated $600,000 in the recently passed state budget to go toward the trail, and with the help of a N.C. Department of Transportation (DOT) grant, the funding for the first six and a half miles of trails is secured. Conserving Carolina and Friends of the Ecusta Trail are also over half way toward their $6.5 million dollar capital campaign to meet the 20% match for the DOT grant and the Henderson County Tourism Development Authority recently gave $2.5 million to put toward the trail.
Funding has been harder to come by on the Transylvania County side, but Rebekah Robinson, assistant director of programs with Conserving Carolina, said Transylvania County recently applied for a $1.2 million grant for the design and engineering of the trail through the Economic Development Agency, a federal agency with a tourism recovery grant program that is part of the COVID-19 recovery stimulus for $1.2 million.
The total cost of the trail is estimated at $31 million.
Construction in Henderson County is expected to begin early 2023, and according to Burns, as soon as funding is secured for the remaining miles of trail, he expects planning, design and construction to fall into place just as quickly.
Trail proponents are coming into the new year on a high after 2021 proved to be a monumental year for the Ecusta Trail.
As previously reported, last August, a subsidiary of Conserving Carolina completed the purchase of the rail corridor, and since then, local governments and nonprofits have rallied behind the trail.
The Henderson County Board of Commissioners recently entered a 125-year leasing agreement with Conserving Carolina to become the operator and builder of the trail on the Henderson County side, and Robinson said the organization is close to coming to a leasing agreement with the city of Brevard for the Transylvania County side. With these agreements, the respective local government entities will operate the trail as a linear park within their existing parks and recreation departments and be responsible for overseeing the trail’s construction.
In June 2021, the Brevard City Council passed a resolution to take the lead role in applying for grants to secure funding and oversee the design and construction of the trail in the county.
The decision came after years of inaction from the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners, who have yet to publicly declare their support or opposition to the trail and have shown to be far less energetic in helping to make the trail a reality compared to their counterparts in Henderson County.
Additionally, Henderson County commissioners have already created an Ecusta Trail advisory committee to help make recommendations to commissioners, and in December Brevard City Council passed a resolution to create a similar committee in Brevard.
Local nonprofits and politicians have also been vocal in backing the trail. In Transylvania County, Blue Zones-Brevard announced last year the Ecusta Trail would be their landmark project.
Support also came from current and past politicians, with state Sen. Chuck Edwards pushing for budget funding in the statehouse and former state Rep. Chuck McGrady taking and active role in trail advocacy after his retirement from the legislature, where he was also a vocal proponent.
With all of this momentum, Burns said he is constantly taking calls from people interested in two opportunities — volunteering and economic development.
Spots for a Jan. 15 volunteer day in Henderson County are already filled up, but Burns said there is tremendous support from the community to donate time and money to bring the trail to the finish line.
Additionally, Burns touted three major economic development opportunities —that he knows of— that are in the works because of the anticipated economic boon the trail is expected to bring.
None of the projects are public yet, Burns said, but he was confident the trail would continue to inspire investment from the business community.
“We’re talking about substantial business and infrastructure development,” Burns said. “I mean, we’re not talking about just a small bike shop, or a restaurant. It is pretty substantial infrastructure and development. They’re very few days of the week that go by that somebody doesn’t call me or email me and say they’re thinking about a business venture along that trail.”