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Ecusta Rail Trail nets an unprecedented $45.9 million in federal funding

The railway project is expected to cost more than $50 million.
Real Digital Productions/ Conserving Carolina
The railway project is expected to cost more than $50 million.

For more than a decade, local greenway advocates have campaigned to transform an old railway corridor into a 19-mile path between Hendersonville and Brevard. Two federal grants from the US Department of Transportation (USDOT), worth a total of $45.9 million, should expedite the process.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation helped the Brevard area apply for two different grants, the Nationally Significant Federal Lands and Tribal Transportation Projects Program (NSFLTP) and the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE). This was the third time the project applied for the RAISE grant, having been denied twice before. It was the city’s first attempt at the NSFLTP grant.

To the surprise of Brevard Mayor Maureen Copelof, the project received both grants in the span of a month.

“People at the federal level tell me it’s unprecedented. And for a little town like Brevard with 8,000 people... this is the biggest series of grants for a project, I think, in our city's history,” said Copelof. She added, “It was just unbelievable. I mean that just doesn’t happen.”

 A map of the future Ecusta Rail Trail, in yellow, with other nearby trail connections.
Conserving Carolina
A map of the future Ecusta Rail Trail, in yellow, with other nearby trail connections.

On July 12, NCDOT announced Brevard and surrounding areas would receive $21.4 million for the Ecusta Rail Trail as one of seven recipients of the NSFLTP.

Just a few weeks prior, the USDOT said that Brevard and Hendersonville County would share a $24.5 million grant as one of six North Carolina projects eligible for the RAISE grant.

The funds are a big windfall to the city with an annual budget of about $25 million.

One complication of receiving two federal grants at the same time is that it will require more complex negotiations, due to matching requirements and other federal regulations, according to NCDOT Integrated Mobility Division Director Ryan Brumfield. Brumfield, who helped work on the application process of both grants, said the regulatory compliance shouldn't impact the allocation.

“Bottom line is we know we have the funds. We're not quite sure yet on the process," he explained. “USDOT will start a process to negotiate a grant agreement with NCDOT for the funding. That’ll include terms of scope, schedule, and budget on the project."

The Ecusta Rail Trail, first proposed by residents in 2009, will connect Etowah, Horse Shoe, Laurel Park, Hendersonville, and Brevard with a multi-use greenway that supports walking, running, biking, and wheelchairs.

 A photo of the now unused railway that's slated to become the Ecusta Rail Trail.
Real Digital Productions
The railway corridor has been unused since 2002.

The trail will meander through fields, forests, streams, pastures, and country churches where the now-defunct Norfolk train line used to transport cigarette paper for the shuttered Ecusta Paper Corporation.

Plans connect it with Pisgah National Forest by way of Brevard’s 10-mile Estatoe Trail, which merges with the Davidson River Campground in Pisgah.

The Ecusta Trail will also connect to Transylvania Regional Hospital, Pisgah Forest Elementary School, Davidson River School, Etowah Elementary School, as well as multiple bus stops in both Henderson and Transylvania County, according to a press release from Henderson County.

Copelof said she believes this regional connection, especially the partnership between Brevard and Henderson County, is why they were able to get so much federal funding.

"It's really an amazing piece of connectivity and infrastructure,” she said. “It’s going to increase mobility between a lot of these small communities and the city of Brevard and the city of Hendersonville.”

She also cited economic opportunity, bicycle safety, access to federal land, social health, and transportation as other realms in which the region will benefit from the trail.

For plans made prior to the pandemic, the project was estimated to cost a total of $31.1 million, but according to Friends of Ecusta Trail president Mark Tooley, the cost has likely increased. "Recent estimates are a little over $50 million, and even those numbers are 6-8 months old.” Tooley said.

“Hendersonville just released a request for construction bids on the first six miles that will go from downtown Hendersonville to Horse Shoe. Those bids are due back in August,” he said.

"That will give us a good sense of current market rate, and then they’ll have better numbers to truly estimate the total cost of construction for the full 19 miles.”

A timeline of the future Ecusta Rail Trail, from 1939 to now.
Friends of Ecusta Trail
A timeline of the future Ecusta Rail Trail, from 1939 to now.

Friends of Ecusta Trail, an advocacy organization formed in 2010, has collaborated with regional land trust nonprofit Conserving Carolina and officials from Hendersonville and Transylvania County.

In 2019, NCDOT gave Conserving Carolina $6.4 million to purchase the 19-mile corridor from the Kansas-based railroad company Watco. Conserving Carolina then leased 11 miles to Henderson County and eight miles to Brevard.

Railbanking, or the act of converting old railroad lines into walkable paths, has been a practice in the US since 1983 as an amendment to the National Trails System Act. This voluntary agreement allows a trail agency to use out-of-service road corridors, with the caveat that railroad companies can reclaim the property should they choose to restart rail service.

According to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, this arrangement led to more than 4,200 miles of rail-trails across the country, including the 22-mile American Tobacco Trail connecting Durham and Wake County.

Construction on the first six miles of the Ecusta Trail is set to begin this year in Henderson County, but the Brevard trail side will not start immediately. “In the best case scenario, we’ll start construction in two years, Copelof said. “We’ve got to do engineering, and this trail involves eleven bridges... so it’s not as easy as you know, a straight asphalt trail.”

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.