(Adapted from materials presented by Bill Bussey in 2003 with text on Wake & Chatham added later)
The Triangle Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Inc. (TRTC) was founded in 1989 to work with local and state government officials to preserve local abandoned railroad corridors for future transportation and other interim uses such as recreational trails.
Working within the Triangle J Council of Governments service area of Chatham, Durham, Johnson, Lee, Orange and Wake counties; TRTC, led by its first president, Jon Parker, TRTC obtained federal tax -exempt status, and identified what became its principal project, the American Tobacco Trail, a 22-milelong rail-to-trail conversion which would run on the former Norfolk & Southern railroad corridor from Durham to New Hill-Olive Chapel Road in western Wake County.
Parker, who was followed in TRTC’s presidency by John Goebel, worked along with Robert Payne, Al Capehart, Libby Searles, and Rick Burt to obtain an initial $2500 grant from the Durham Urban Trails and Greenways Commission and Wake Co. Parks to fund a Trail Conversion Master Plan for the American Tobacco Trail (ATT). This plan, developed by Greenways Incorporated, was published in October 1992 and presented a detailed roadmap of how the ATT should be developed.
In mid 1993, the first of a series of “Management Team” meetings were organized and held to bring together the many agencies, municipalities, and organizations that had a role in the development of the ATT. Tom Mappes used his presentation skills and engineering background to inspire and sell the vision of the ATT to these and other groups. Initial funding for the ATT was approved in 1995 utilizing funds from the Inter-Modal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and administered by the North Carolina Dept. of Transportation (NCDOT) Bicycle-Pedestrian Division.
Tom Mappes took the reins of TRTC in 1994, continuing regular management team meetings as the NCDOT and City of Durham purchased portions of the corridor. He worked with Durham staff to design the ATT and to plan to close the “gap” in trail plans in the vicinity of I-40. He and TRTC fought unsuccessfully to convince planning staff to widen the paved urban trail in Durham from a state standard ten feet to twelve feet. As a compromise, 2-foot gravel shoulders were instead agreed upon.
In Wake County, ATT trail promotion efforts began in 1990, when area equestrians, who were principal users of the abandoned railroad corridor at that time because there were no bridges over the streams to accommodate other user groups, recognized the recreational potential of the trail. Leslie Kennedy coordinated efforts of TRTC and the NC Horse Council to request the NC Department of Transportation to construct a tunnel under the soon-to-be-widened US Hwy 64 in western Wake County so that the future ATT would not be terminated at that point. Thanks to their efforts and others, the NCDOT agreed to build a tunnel under the highway, allowing the future trail to pass underneath.
The NCDOT purchased the future ATT corridor in Wake, and later in Chatham and southern Durham counties. With Cary and Apex announcing plans to eventually connect with the future trail, the ATT became the spine of what will become a network of over 70 miles of interconnected trails and greenways, including a part of the Circle-the-Triangle Trail envisioned by Sig Hutchinson and the Triangle Greenways Council. Curt Devereux set up and maintained a website at www.ncrail-trails.org/trtc, now www.triangletrails.org. Rick Burt published several print newsletters, and Bill Bussey started a monthly e-newsletter that was issued from 2000-2005.
Wake County officially started working on the ATT in 1998 with the first of a series of planning meetings. Christy Cornell, with support from Wake County Parks Director David Carter, Robert Hinson and others, organized and led these meetings of trail users – including TRTC members – and adjacent property owners which continued through 1999, resulting in a master plan for the ATT in Wake county in early 2000. The Wake County commissioners approved the ATT as a project later that year. TRTC obtained a grant for engineering and design work for the bridges in Wake and Chatham counties and partnered with Wake to utilize these funds for engineering and hydrology work as well as preliminary design of the bridges there.
The first 3.2-mile section of the American Tobacco Trail opened in Durham on June 3, 2000. TRTC President Bill Bussey and others continued to help county staff plan the ATT in Durham, Wake and Chatham counties. Chatham County developed a Master Plan for the ATT there, which was approved by the Chatham County commissioners in January 2002.
Locomotive Used on the ATT Corridor from 1905-1920
With a grant from the Durham Open Space and Trails Commission, TRTC, led by trail boss Thad Howard, started work on improving 3 miles of corridor from Massey Chapel Road to the Chatham County line so it could be safely used as an existing surface trail by the public right now before the rest of the trail is constructed. Since the opening of the C.M. Herndon Park in 2006, this section of trail has access to a trailhead parking area for hikers and cyclists.
Durham opened another 3.2 miles of ATT, plus the 1.5-mile long Riddle Road Spur in August 2002. These Durham sections of the ATT also became a designated portion of the East Coast Greenway, a planned 2600-mile long off -road “Urban Appalachian Trail” connection of existing and future greenways, which will stretch fromCalais, Maine to Key West, Florida.
Wake County opened their first 3.5-mile phase of the ATT in August 2003 with a reception which included US Representative David Price, most Wake County Commissioners, and about 200 trail users and supporters. This ten-foot wide granite screenings-surfaced trail was the first portion of the ATT open to equestrians, and serves as a model for the remaining rural portions of the trail in Chatham and southern Durham counties. (A second phase extending north from Wimberly Road to New Hope Church Road was formally opened on June 4, 2005. This includes the new Trailhead parking area at White Oak Church Road and new rest room facilities at Olive-Chapel Road. In 2005 Congressman David Price secured ~ 6 million$ in federal transportation funding aimed at building the ATT in Durham from NC 54 south and all of the section in Chatham County. After detailed designs were developed by NC DOT, several public meetings, and lengthy deliberations by the Commissioners, development of the 4.67 mile section in Chatham County commenced early in 2009 and was completed in January 2010. In response to requests voiced at several public meetings, a gravel screenings surface was used on the section south of New Hope Church Road and a dual surface trail employing a 10′ asphalt surface and a 6′ wide screenings surface was used on the section from New Hope Road to the County line in Durham. Since it’s opening, the Chatham section has been managed by the the Town of Cary Parks Dept. The final section of the ATT was completed in 2014. This section runs from the Chatham County line to just north of NC 54 and includes the hallmark ATT feature, the pedestrian bridge spanning Interstate 40.
TRTC continues to advocate for the American Tobacco Trail and other rail-trail and greenway projects throughout the Triangle. Please see our Future Trails page for information on the Timberlake and Duke Beltline Corridors. You may also want to look at our 2018 End-of-Year Letter to see some of our more recent accomplishments.