Carl Knoch can't recall working on puzzles while growing up, and he isn't much of a bicyclist. But that hasn't deterred the former Towson resident from participating in an effort to fully connect more than 250 miles of multiuse trails linking Maryland, Washington, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
"Most people who get involved in the rail-trail world are cyclists, but I'm not a cyclist," he said. "I got involved because I thought it was just a good idea to take an out-of-service rail corridor and turn it into an asset for our community."
Knoch, who now lives in New Freedom, Pa., just over the Baltimore County line, and chairs the York County Rail Trail Authority, is working on a network of trails called the Grand History Trail. On Saturday, a group of about 10 cyclists left York, Pa., for a six-day tour along the proposed route that will take them through Annapolis, Baltimore and Hunt Valley. The ride is not open to the public.
The cyclists are scheduled to arrive in Annapolis on Tuesday. The following day, they plan to congregate before the Maryland State House at 9:30 a.m. to talk to legislative leaders before biking to Baltimore. On Thursday, the cyclists hope to meet city leaders at City Hall at 9:30 a.m. before returning to York.
Last year, Kevin Hawn, an ultramarathon runner from Spring Grove, Pa., ran several portions of the trail. But Angela Edris, one of the bike ride's organizers, said the group wanted to bring more attention to completing the Grand History Trail.
"A few of us, all friends and colleagues, decided that we wanted to help and raise awareness of the project," she said. "Being the bicycle enthusiasts that we all are, we determined that the best way to perhaps do this was for our small group to ride as much of the proposed trail as possible."
Don Gogniat is credited by many for brainstorming the idea for connecting the trails into one network. Gogniat, who served as vice chairman of the York County Rail Trail Authority for 10 years, said the plan had a humble birth in 2006.
"It came from a napkin," he recalled. "We were sitting around at the Rail Trail Authority and we looked at our trail, and we knew about the C&O Canal and we knew about our study, and we said, 'You know, this could be a loop.' I knew about the success of the Great Allegheny Passage, which connects to Cumberland, which connects to the C&O Canal. You can go from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., on a Rail Trail, and I thought, 'This is a perfect idea to move forward on.' So we have been moving forward."
The largest portions of the trail that are already completed and open are the C&O Canal Towpath, the Baltimore & Annapolis Trail and the Torrey C. Brown Trail, which was formerly known as the Northern Central Railroad Trail.
Several paths include roads shared with cars, but there are also significant tracts between Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and Gettysburg, Pa., and Gettysburg and York that are in the planning stages or remain untouched.
The financial benefits of a completed network are noteworthy. Nate Evans, executive director of Bike Maryland, cited a report on trail traffic for the C&O Canal and the Great Allegheny Passage that stated that the latter generates more than $4 million annually to the local economy.
Owen McEvoy, spokesman for Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh, said the county has already allocated planning money to building a bike bridge connecting the B&A Trail and Broadneck Peninsula Trail over Ritchie Highway around Anne Arundel Community College.
McEvoy said Schuh also formed a 12-member county bicycle advisory commission last month to boost tourism in the county.
"One of the biggest drivers of the economy in Anne Arundel County is tourism, and it's a burgeoning industry as tourism based around cycling," McEvoy said. "People will bike from Point A to Point B and then they'll spend the night at a hotel and eat dinner. Then they get up the next morning and bike from Point B to Point C. It is a growing driver within the tourism industry."
Evans said trails also tend to increase the value of properties adjacent to and near the trails.
"We've already seen it proven across the country that when you build trails, areas become more livable, property values increase, and you definitely see more people wanting to come to that area because of the trails and because it gives them another option for transportation," he said. "When you have a trail, you can ride your bike or walk safely wherever you want to go.
"Secondly, you get what you planned for when it comes to transportation. For instance, if you'd rather build an express highway, it will become congested as soon as you build it. If you want to build a trail, you'll have more people come to the area, live there, make a difference."
Gogniat said the Grand History Trail's benefits involve "health, wealth and joy."
"The health part is it's a very good place to exercise," he said. "Lots of people love bicycling, jogging, horseback riding, any nonmotorized thing that gets you out there moving. The wealth section is it's an economic driver. People like to do vacations with bicycles now, and businesses pop up. … And the joy factor is Rail Trails are generally the friendliest places you can go. Everybody says hello, it's multigenerational, it's multiracial. It's just a pleasant place that people enjoy, and the other part of the joy is it makes sense to build a legacy for your kids."
The organizers agree, however, that the greatest push will come from legislators in whose jurisdictions the trail will run through. While the mayors of York and Gettysburg are interested in the project, their counterparts in other towns and counties are not as open.
Knoch, who is 68, half-joked that he isn't sure he will live to see the Grand History Trail finished.
"I think the trail moves at the speed of money," Knoch said, noting that feasibility studies on a trail between Hanover, Pa. and Gettysburg and a path between Gettysburg and Emmitsburg have been completed. "It's an idea that has been out there for nine years now. Let's build some momentum and get this thing done."
The motto of the bike ride is "Let's Finish It," and Gogniat is confident that there will be enough support from citizens to complete the plan.
"This trail is bound to happen," he predicted. "Sooner or later, it's going to be connected into a loop. There's no way it can't be connected. It's just too good to pass up. So the people that are in charge now might as well get it together and do it."