The Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) received $72,000 to go toward “rail to trail” projects in the region. This is just one initiative the Appalachian regional Commission (ARC) is taking to remediate losses to the state’s coal-impacted communities.

By Sophia Mastroianni

Photo by Perry Quan via Wikimedia Commons

This story is the first in a three-part series on economic development initiatives in Pittsburgh by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). ARC is a regional economic development agency that provided $1.7 million in grants to fund economic development plans in Pittsburgh this past October. Development plans are aimed at helping to remediate the sharp decline of coal industry jobs in the region.

Historically, Pittsburgh’s economy has relied heavily on blue-collar workers to mine and transport coal, starting in the 1800s until present day. When people think of Pittsburgh, often images of steel mills, coal mines, and smog come to mind. However, due to environmental concerns and lack of an imminent necessity for coal, Pittsburgh has been forced to adjust its identity from a coal-centered industry to one influenced by more technology and manufacturing jobs.

Coal production in the Appalachian Region fell close to 45 percent between 2005 and 2015. Therefore, the ARC intended for the funds it provided to maintain economic stability in areas throughout Allegheny County in other, non-coal sectors.

Last year, The Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC), with a local office on the North Shore, received $72,000 to conduct a feasibility study to evaluate, examine and connect uncompleted sections of “rail to trail” projects in the region. PEC’s feasibility study is focused on building on economic opportunities and economic recovery for communities that heavily relied on coal by creating jobs in different fields like technology, manufacturing and service, while also working directly with the community.

According to Davitt Woodwell, president of PEC, rail-trail initiatives turn out-of-service railroad tracks into pedestrian trails to boost tourism, thereby fueling economic growth for local businesses. People who leave the trail are seeking amenities like food from restaurants and shelter from motels or hotels, he explained.

In the past, coal was often transported through barges and trains by the Pittsburgh Coal Company with several railroads to transport it as far as the Midwest. With fewer and fewer rail lines transporting goods, many have become abandoned. The PEC has taken innovative measures to utilize them.

According to Woodwell, coal is part of Pittsburgh’s rich history and industrial “legacy.” The PEC hopes to refurbish abandoned rail lines into trails while maintaining the authenticity of the past.

“Where there were coal mines, there were railroads,” Woodwell said.

The legacy of coal has taken local environmental agencies, as well as the PEC, decades of cleanup. The ARC grant brings together communities suffering from a fiscal decline from the coal industry and financially helps to support rail-trail initiatives.

The influence of rail-trails has an indirect impact on economic growth for communities. Not only do they encourage a healthy lifestyle, but the longer the length of the trail, the more people will come to experience the outdoors with longer walks or longer bike rides. According to Woodwell, this fuels local businesses like bike shops, bed-and-breakfasts and ice cream shops.

“It’s not going to bring back factories, but it is going to help support and sustain a number of these smaller businesses,” said Woodwell.