Converted railway wins hearts of hikers, bikers

March 21, 1993|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Staff Writer

It's true love, replete with gifts and flowers and talk o perfection.

But the object of affection here is a park, the most popular one in Anne Arundel County. It's the Baltimore & Annapolis Trail Park, a 13.3-mile stretch from Glen Burnie to Annapolis, in the roadbed of the old "Bumble and Amble" railroad.

Last year, an estimated 500,000 admirers -- some of whom live across the street and some across the country -- set foot, wheels, skis and their horses' hoofs on it.

"This is the best thing that ever happened to Anne Arundel County," said Ewell Harmon, a music teacher who last year pedaled 4,000 miles on the trail as a patrol volunteer. "In today's society, there's so much stress and tension. That's what parks are all about."

"The reason people like it is because it's convenient. It's beautiful," said Bill Levitt, of Severna Park, who irregularly bikes on the trail and who donated a golf cart last year for rangers to use.

Trail lovers have contributed trees, water fountains, a wheelchair, railroad artifacts, a parlor stove and more to the linear park, which opened in 1990.

"People look at the trail as something they personally own," said Dave Dionne, trail superintendent.

The trail is shared by garden enthusiasts, cyclists, fitness clubs, railroad history buffs, a baby strollers group, bird watchers, children walking home from school, adults walking to a store and families out for a Sunday stroll. Its settings range from suburban to wooded; sections are dotted with historic sites, ponds, old houses built from kits, evidence of the old railroad and a half-dozen bicycle shops.

The biggest complaint about the trail, Mr. Dionne said, is that there isn't enough of it. Only 10 feet of its 66-foot width are paved -- most newer trails around the country are 12 feet wide -- and warm weather weekends have seen it as crowded as a rush-hour subway.

Boy Scouts can't build flower beds fast enough for people to adopt. So far, they have built 60, but there's a waiting list of 30 garden-tender wannabes. Last year, volunteers logged 7,442 hours in trail maintenance, bicycle patrols, gardening and the like. Except for occasional vandalism and a rash of thefts of Starter jackets, the park is nearly crime-free.

An umbrella group, Friends of the B&A Trail, is preparing to incorporate and seek tax-exempt, nonprofit status from the IRS. It would like to raise money for everything from more landscaping to office equipment and tools the county does not provide.

A guide to the trail park, produced jointly with the geography department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County last year, is going into its second printing. The topographic map book, detailing points of interest and local history, is nearly sold out at $6.25.

But to many, the trail is jeopardized, ironically, by something similar to what it once was. The Mass Transit Administration is considering extending light rail from Dorsey Road to downtown Glen Burnie along the old railroad bed. To many, that would be the first step toward Annapolis.

And if the commuter line gets on the trail southbound, it won't detour off, they predict.

"It's certainly a top-of-the-list option," O. James Lighthizer, state secretary of transportation, said of using the former rail bed as a light rail corridor. But that is years away, he added.

And the tracks would be only about 20 feet wide, Ken Goon, chief MTA planner, said recently.

While some say light-rail cars running next to them wouldn't be so bad, others are not so sure. That commuter rails run alongside bike paths in Europe is no consolation.

"A big hurdle the MTA is going to have is the popularity of the hiker-biker trail as it currently exists," said C. Edward Middlebrooks, who represents the Glen Burnie area on the County Council.

"I'd hate to see that rail go in there," added Bart Kestner, who can see the garden bed he and his wife tend from their house in Glen Burnie. "The gardens would be gone."

Not only would the gardens be gone, but so would the ambience that many say draws them to the park. Despite running parallel to nearby Ritchie Highway, the path seems far removed from the traffic-laden road.

"The whole idea is to get away. It's like being in a park, a straight park," said Cindy Brunt of Severn, who roller-blades there at least once a week with friends, her teen-age children and her husband.

"I think it's a sign of the times," said former Anne Arundel Executive Robert A. Pascal, under whose administration the trail was bought. "Sometimes you have to accommodate different modes of travel."

The county spent $1.3 million in state Open Space money to buy the abandoned rail bed more than a decade ago, and more than $9 million to turn it into a park, build five bridges and restore two historic buildings. It spent another $1.5 million to buy adjacent land.

The use of Open Space funds to buy the park may create a hurdle for the rail line, Mr. Lighthizer said.

If the land is not used for a park, the county has to negotiate with the state to provide equivalent parkland or money or both.

But meanwhile, MTA has no plans and no money to even study extending light rail further into the county, he added.

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