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From New Years 2004 Trail Tracks, the national newsletter of American Trails

Using transportation and utility corridors for trails

This article is based on Mr. Carlson's thesis Utilizing Irrigation Canals in Northern Utah for Recreational Trail Use.

By James G. Carlson

We all see the rapid growth and development of our urban areas, while at the same time the public demands trail networks that access parks, public lands, and communities. The presence of linear utility and transportation corridors in and around these urban settings offers a tantalizing prospect for trail planners. These utilities can provide solutions to improve the economic vitality, aesthetic value, and the general quality of life for the communities they transect. Examples of these include utility corridors such as irrigation canals and electric power lines, and transportation rights-of-way.

"These utilities can provide solutions to improve the economic vitality, aesthetic value, and the general quality of life for the communities they transect."

One positive outcome can be a new relationship between a utility company and a public entity managing a trail on these rights-of-way, creating a whole spectrum of community benefits. While this relationship means some sacrifice on the part of the utility company and transportation entity, they receive real benefits as well. But their economic, liability and maintenance concerns need to be clearly understood and strictly negotiated as part of the construction of a public trail on their right-of-way.

Issues and Concerns

For utility company and transportation officials, it is the realization that recreational use of their corridor will continue to occur, unmanaged or managed, that creates receptivity to the idea of sharing their corridor with the public. But in any case, there are several major concerns posed by the proposition of managed recreational use of their rights-of-way:

• Greatly increased exposure to tort liability when entrants are injured on account of "attractive nuisances" and other potentially hazardous structures. This is especially true along open concrete lined canals where the water can be fairly swift and difficult to escape.

• Interference with regular operation and maintenance activities and the resulting associated increase in operating costs. Increased operation and maintenance cost are a critical concern especially for small utility companies with tight budgets.

• Increased crime such as vandalism of structures, dumping of garbage, OHV use. Protection of structures and facilities is another critical concern.

• Conflicts between maintenance crews and trail users.

• Increased encroachments of adjacent landowners.

• Public safety.

• A lack of a defined management entity. When the trail passes through multiple jurisdictions or municipalities, there will be differences in quality of maintenance and design throughout the length of the trail.

• Lack of funding sources.

• Securing consensus among the landowners over whose property the easement crosses. Addressing adjacent landowners concerns can be a monumental undertaking unto itself.

These same issues face planners interested in developing trails along these valuable open space corridors. The initial challenge is to combine an active outreach initiative with sincere interest in the concerns of corridor managers. When affected groups are given appropriate measures of respect, credit and attention, they are more likely to become advocates of the project and less likely to be swayed by the opposition.

Legal Precautions

The risk of personal injury and the resulting claims/lawsuits from trail use can be reduced through conscientious trail design, construction and maintenance, but will never be eliminated from the equation. Given this, certain precautions can be taken which will greatly diminish the risks:

• Exposure to liability can be reduced via state Recreational Use Statutes. Their intent is "to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes." While these statutes do not grant immunity and cannot prevent suit, they do limit landowner liability. Efforts to educate the public about the dangers associated with these rights-of-way are critical in creating a safe environment and reducing claims.

• A creative risk management program. A few of the actions a risk management program could include are: an intensive education program, signage clarifying potential hazards, public safety devices, safety feature standards, restricting time of use to daylight hours, and formal trail patrols.

• Indemnification and hold harmless clauses within the recreational use agreement.

Implementation Measures

Introduction of public trails along these corridors requires intensive active cooperation and planning between the trail or city agency and the utility company or transportation entity in order to minimize operation and maintenance impacts. Some of the measures that can help diminish these impacts include:

• Funding solutions such as seeking out a utility company who may be interested in utilizing the proposed corridor to improve and/or expand its system of delivery.

• Agreeing on an annual operation plan and reimbursing for additional operation costs.

• Establishing times for specific operation and maintenance tasks so the trail can be closed down.

• Establishing design standards such as separating trail from maintenance roads.

• Adequate signage and intensive education programs.

• Informal/neighborhood patrols.

• A policy providing that the needs of the affected company or agency should take precedence over the needs of the public when necessary; and the establishment of a coalition which oversees the whole length of the trail.

Private-Public Relationships

As local and regional economies across the U.S. are finding out, investing in trails and greenways stimulates and strengthens the economic vitality of local communities by enhancing property values, revitalizing businesses, creating jobs, and adding public revenues. But other returns are a strong sense of community, recreation opportunities, quality of life improvements, and a non-polluting mode of transportation.

Couple all these benefits with a successful private-public relationship with utility companies and/or transportation agencies and you have real potential for solving multiple problems within one corridor. The corridor managers become valuable and respected community members while increasing awareness of their interests, improving their risk management efforts, and giving a potential liability a managed, controlled, conscientious use. This mutually beneficial relationship with city and regional agencies can help share costs and in most cases reduce the burden of dealing with public use of their corridor.

James Carlson's thesis "Utilizing Irrigation Canals in Northern Utah for Recreational Trail Use: An Evaluation of Issues and Concerns" is available online at in the Resources and Archives section under the Planning Statewide Trails heading. The study documents the issues related to planning recreational trails along irrigation canal rights-of-way and provides valuable information for anyone planning or advocating canal trails. The study was accomplished through interviews with canal company officials and research of related literature. It offers a primer on the liability, maintenance, safety, and design of proposed canal trails, as well as extensive literature review of adjacent landowner concerns.

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