Trails or rails?

The growing national trend toward converting old railroad beds into recreational trails for bikers, hikers, bird-watchers and flora-lovers offers no better examples than the Baltimore and Annapolis Trail in Anne Arundel County and the Northern Central Railroad Trail in neighboring Baltimore County.

More than fun places to kill a few hours, these "linear parks" are cherished by the hundreds of thousands of people who travel through them each year.


On a sunny summer Saturday or Sunday in Baltimore County, cars with bikes strapped to their roofs drive toward the Northern Central trail in such numbers that you'd think the Tour de France had relocated there. And last year, users of the B&A; rail bed showed their affection for the "Bumble and Amble" trail by volunteering nearly 7,500 hours for gardening, patrols and other maintenance activities.

Inspired both by the popularity of these trails and by a 1991 mandate requiring states to spend parts of their federal highway funds on "enhancement" projects, the Maryland government has hatched a 10-year plan for a bike trail that would link Annapolis to York, Pa. -- with a 23 1/2 -mile connecting ride on the light rail from eventual stations at Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Baltimore County's Hunt Valley.


An intriguing vision, but it has some daunting gaps. Only 1 1/2 miles of the 22-mile trail between York and the Mason-Dixon Line are finished. And light rail stops aren't planned for completion at Hunt Valley or BWI until 1996. By then, the state also supposedly will have built a bike path from the airport to the B&A; Trail.

Cynics say this plan sounds a lot like a pipe dream. Yet given the popularity of the trails and the benefits of restoring old rail lines into natural splendors, governments could have worse visions.

Maryland officials seemed to sense this when they recently suggested putting an Arundel extension of the light rail alongside the B&A; Trail, rather than obliterating the trail for light rail.

After all, the trail is 66 feet wide; a light-rail line would need only 20 feet. Those who might object that passing trains would ruin the ambience of the path should consider their good fortune in perhaps having both their beloved trail and the convenience of ++ light rail.

The choice need not be trails or rails. Why not both?