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As a tour cyclist and aficionado of non-motorized, two-wheel transportation, Andrew Hamilton believes the Lebanon Valley Rail-Trail is an excellent ride. And he should know, considering he’s ridden countless trails in Pennsylvania and across the nation.
As board director of the 1,300-mile September 11th National Memorial Trail, a portion of which runs east to west through Lebanon County, he’s just as passionate about efforts of the September 11th National Memorial Trail (NMT) Alliance to see the entire trail system receive designation as a national landmark as he is about biking. Over 900 of the trail miles pass through 23 counties in Pennsylvania.
The national designation as a historic landmark would serve to commemorate and honor those whose lives were impacted forever on that fateful day 20 years ago in September.
“The Lebanon Valley Rail-Trail is really one of those excellent, really excellent, multi-county trails that connect, almost, from the Susquehanna River well into Lebanon County,” said Hamilton, who has ridden the entire trail located in six states and the District of Columbia. “We got off at Rocherty Road and then traversed through the eastern Lebanon towns of Richland and Newmanstown. We actually stopped at one point to take a photograph of the beautiful farmland on Richland Road.”
Within Lebanon County, the 15-mile Lebanon Valley Rail-Trail goes from the southwestern border of Lebanon County and runs through the towns of Colebrook, Mt. Gretna, Cornwall and the City of Lebanon. The September 11th National Memorial Trail continues on Rte. 422 coming out of the City and uses other roadways in eastern Lebanon County as the trail passes through Richland and Newsmantown before entering Berks County.
Legislation to have the trail become a national historic landmark is well on its “path” to becoming a reality given the recent unanimous vote the legislation received in the House of Representatives in Congress, according to Thomas Baxter, IV, President, September 11th National Memorial Trail.
“Chances are highly significant for passage given the bipartisan support in the House,” said Baxter, who watched the historic moment unfold while watching the vote on C-SPAN. “There were cheers in the House, and that was really moving.”
Alliance officials hope to get the bill through the Senate and signed into law during the month of September as part of commemoration events this year.
“We hope, without taking anything away from the families, to have it signed into law in September,” added Baxter. “The 20th anniversary is a very significant event, and this is all about respect and remembering.”
A national historic landmark designation would assist the non-profit with its recently launched initiative to educate young people, said Baxter.
“A new aspect that we are beginning to tackle is education,” said Baxter. “There is a whole new generation that was not alive or was too young to take in such a concept that had such an impact on the entire globe and on national and international policy.”
Receiving national designation would be a huge step in moving their education initiative forward, according to Baxter.
“It (passage) would create a corridor connecting the three main sites (the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Flight 93 Memorial) and also (provide) interpretation along the way,” said Baxter. “And we also hope that these six states and the District of Columbia bring together great swaths of our nation to learn about all the communities that were affected by this. It’s really important to be there to see it as well.”
Hamilton concurred with Baxter’s assessment of the opportunity for the trail designation to be a teaching moment.
“When you have the opportunity to be on a trail that is part of the September 11th National Memorial Trail alignment, you have the opportunity to teach and reflect,” said Hamilton. “When I say teach, you are often going out as a family, and people who are 19 years old were not born when this happened. So, you have a greater opportunity to discuss history and impacts to our nation and the world with all that has happened in the last 20 years.”
Promoting a healthy lifestyle is also an objective of the alliance wherever the national trail may take an outdoor enthusiast — whether it be to small scenic bucolic hamlets or major metropolitan areas.
“A lot of these smaller municipalities do not have recreational corridors to get out and get healthy and to connect to one another and have that opportunity to have tourism come through their small towns,” said Baxter. “In major metropolitan areas, this is an opportunity to create alternative transportation, so you have individuals who are not riding strictly for recreation. They are riding to work, to go shopping, and this has been a tremendous development in New York and in the Philadelphia area as well as connecting Pittsburgh and D.C.”
Earlier this year, the trail alliance worked with Lebanon County officials to create support for the project while simultaneously addressing conservation and transportation requirements with the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, respectively.
In May, the Lebanon County commissioners voted unanimously to pass a resolution in support of the national project. This yes vote could have huge implications for the trail in Lebanon County as projects connected to the trail or nearby highways that connect riders from trail A to trail B seek funding for future infrastructure projects, according to NMT board member Eric Brenner.
“Any official designation typically does make it easier to secure state or federal funds, particularly from competitive grants, but this is just part of the more complicated process of how local units of government choose to prioritize their various transportation needs, including trail development,” said Brenner.
Baxter explained that, by creating host agreements with organizations that manage existing trails, it is easier to help those groups market their assets once a national designation has been awarded.
“The trail group that exists and has created that resource, we have a host agreement with those individuals, so we can market the September 11th national trail,” Baxter said. “And those are sometimes small localized trails, and it brings national and international attention to their resources that they have developed. We also offer technical support for development and grant writing after a hosting agreement has been reached.”
Hamilton said a noteworthy development for local trails like the Lebanon Valley Rail-Trail is the attention a national designation brings to local communities, specifically with the uptick in the number of tourists who spend money in the towns they visit.
“As a touring cyclist, you bring just what you need, and you bring your wallet,” said Hamilton. “You need to eat. You need to sleep. You need to repair your bicycle, and, at the end of the day, you don’t even take up a parking space (at the place you stay).”
The fact that a majority of trail miles reside in Pennsylvania is not only good news for Lebanon County but also the state’s economy.
“We link together many of the longest trails in Pennsylvania so communities can experience a series of major tourism and economic development opportunities,” said Hamilton. “So much of trail development is about, specifically, economic development and quality of life.”
Surveys have shown that nearby trails are important to local residents when asked about amenities that are integral to the quality of life, according to Hamilton.
“Trails are number one, and communities need trails to maintain workforces, to get companies to locate in their communities,” noted Hamilton. “And with the new trend of remote working, people can live along any amenity they want. One of the highest responses in (quality of life) surveys is trails, especially in the eastern part of the United States.”
Above all of the benefits that a national trail will bring to the community would be the opportunity for local residents to remember, discover and connect to the events of that day nearly 20 years ago.
“Imagine being a resident of Lebanon County and finding out that your favorite trail is part of the September 11th National Memorial Trail and the impact that would have on you,” said Hamilton. “It is empowering, it is humbling, and it is inspiring at the same time.”
A national trail designation will certainly help ensure that future generations will always remember the events of 9/11.
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