Rail trail on track Oak Street-to-Ephrata link should be done no later than 2017; Lititz Borough portion may not be far behind
By: STEPHEN SEEBER Record Express Staff, Staff Writer
The rail trail from Lititz to Ephrata is on track to be completed within the next four years.
"From here to Ephrata, we’re looking at 2016 or ’17 to be complete," Dan Zimmerman, Warwick Township business manager, said. "And it could be sooner, depending on the funding. The trail is going to be spectacular."
Zimmerman informed the Record Express Tuesday that the township recently acquired a $32,000 DCNR (Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) grant to extend the existing trail from the township municipal campus on Clay Road to Newport Road, a seven-tenths of a mile stretch of the former Reading Railroad line that used to connect Lititz and Ephrata, with stations at Rothsville and Akron in between. Zimmerman said work on this portion of the plan should start this fall and is expected to be completed by the end of the year. The township has some DCNR paperwork to take care of, and follow-up meetings with the four property owners involved with this portion of the plan will need to take place prior to the start of any work.
The 10-foot-wide recreation trail will continue eastward from the existing trail, which runs from Oak Street in Lititz (next to Bonfield Elementary School) to the township building. Unlike the existing macadam trail, the next several phases will be a fine stone surface, what Zimmerman describes as a "country/rural setting" suitable for hiking, biking and jogging.
Meanwhile, the township is aggressively pulling together funding for next three sections of the trail, in addition to a joint effort with Ephrata Township to refurbish the 100-foot-long Cocalico Creek railroad bridge.
Once work to Newport Road is complete, the next phases will be:
? Newport to Rothsville Station Road
? Rothsville Station to Picnic Woods Road
? Picnic Woods to Rothsville Road
? Cocalico Creek Bridge, which will require a grant.
Work in Akron, which takes the trail underneath Rt. 272, is in progress and will connect with an existing trail that leads to downtown Ephrata.
All phases are expected to be complete no later than 2017.
"The money is the biggest challenge," Zimmerman said, "but we’re having some success pulling that together. It’s improved dramatically in the past year."
In addition to state grants, funding comes from developments, which have dedicated recreation funds.
Work on the trail in Lititz Borough, between Oak Street and Route 501, is a little more complicated because part of the rail line is still active. However, negotiations are in the works with Norfolk Southern, which could eventually create a turn-around on the west side of Rt. 501, allowing the decommissioning of the tracks on the east side of the highway. These negotiations are in a preliminary stage, but it is believed the goal could be reached within a year or two.
Last year, borough council engaged the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority to represent Lititz in negotiations with Norfolk Southern, Council President Karen Weibel explained. Matthew Sternberg is the point person in this endeavor and is responsible for bringing all entities to the table to discuss the project. He reports back to borough council as appropriate. Weibel also pointed out that council has had a work group focusing on the rail trail project since the first Joint Strategic Plan (1999). The opportunity to move rail freight operations west of Rt. 501 is a recent consideration. Currently, Norfolk Southern’s two Lititz rail customers are Johnson & Johnson and Wilbur Chocolate, both on the west side of 501.
"This is in a very preliminary stage," said Sternberg, "and it’s fairly complicated."
The principal parties involved are the borough, Norfolk Southern and downtown property owners. The objective is to meet the needs of all, create a scenario that improves rail service to current customers while opening up economic development potential along the rail corridor east of Rt. 501.
"One of the objectives that everyone is interested in," Sternberg said, "is the continuation of the recreation trail into the downtown area. Clearly that is a very desirable amenity."
And even though the corridor is in a flood plain, opportunities for retail operations and restaurants to flank the eventual rail trail could be a huge economic boost for the borough.
"There are limitations, but there are a lot of possibilities," he said. "Right now, it’s difficult for the borough to grow because of the current layout. When you remove the tracks, you can begin to configure parcels that will be much more attractive to investors. How quickly will that be realized? We’ll have to wait and see, but in terms of creating potential, it would do that."
While Sternberg thinks negotiations with Norfolk Southern have been "very constructive," there are still a lot of unknowns.
"This is not going to be a quick project," he reiterated. "Norfolk Southern talks have been productive, but a lot needs to be worked out. The process could easily take a year to three years to get worked out. Old rail lines are not quick and easy to do."
The cost to construct a turn-around west of Rt. 501 could cost $3 million. Funding, Sternberg said, could come from the county, state and a variety of sources.
"I’m cautiously optimistic," Weibel said Tuesday night. "It will take the work of many people over many years to complete the project. It will be very expensive. At the end of the day, it will bring to fruition a regional rail trail that has been in the making for more than 15 years, and enable redevelopment that is crucial to the economic well-being of the borough."
That "economic well-being" has been outlined in the borough’s 2008 master plan.
"The Downtown Master Plan envisions context-sensitive redevelopment in the many parking lot areas that abound in the core downtown area," Weibel explained. "Context-sensitive means the development is sensitive to our historic and existing environment and the natural resources of the Lititz Run and Lititz Springs Park. Building uses would include a combination of residential, professional services, low impact retail and commercial entities — the same things that are already in place in the downtown area. Accommodation must also be made for the industrial uses that are in place today."
Regarding the existing history in this corridor, the fate of the old brick freight depot on Water Street remains unknown, but the outlook is not good.
"As reported earlier in the year, the borough was not successful in negotiating a business-friendly lease with Norfolk Southern regarding the depot," Weibel said.
However, until the railroad company applies for a demolition permit, which it has not done to-date, hope remains for those interested in saving this building for reuse.
So, the recreational road (or trail, or track) from Lititz to Ephrata has been a long time coming, but there seems to be light at the end of the path as work progresses and planners continue to negotiate, and it leads one to wonder how bright the future of these two towns may be a few years down the road.
The borough’s master plan can be found at co.lancaster.pa.us/lititz. In the left margin click Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance. Click Appendices. Scroll to Downtown Master Plan and click on Introduction. More RAIL TRAIL, page A3