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Transmission ROWs offer a unique opportunity to provide public spaces that can be relatively easily obtained, especially when considering the often insurmountable barriers present when reclaiming urban spaces for public use.

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Transmission lines offer a unique opportunity to provide public spaces

 

photo of biker on trail under tall towers

Transmission lines along Denver's Cherry Creek trail

As more and more people flock to urban areas, open spaces are fast becoming inadequate. This greater urban population has led to a number of other issues: sprawl, traffic congestion, pollution, isolated neighborhoods, and overstrained public infrastructure. Public spaces, parks and trails do not always make a top priority during municipal budgeting, but they are one thing people will almost always agree there could be more of.

Urban real estate is an extremely valuable commodity, and if the land was not claimed for public recreational use years ago, it is likely to never happen. Residents place a very high value on having open spaces and recreational areas in cities, but typically are not willing to have a city spend exorbitant amounts in order to provide them.

One major solution to this dilemma can be found in carved out corridors which are mostly ignored: power transmission line right of ways (ROWs). Today there are dozens of public walking and biking trails that follow transmission ROWs, but with proper guidance, awareness, and demonstrated successes there could be hundreds more for the public to enjoy.

During the early to mid-twentieth century when many cities and counties were buying up property for parks and public spaces, public power utilities were buying up transmission right of ways (ROWs). These transmission ROWs can range greatly in length and width, and can also vary greatly in ownership structure. ROWs often share the corridor with other infrastructure such as railroads, roads, pipelines, underground utilities, and waterways.

As one might imagine, the property ownership and agreements can get complex, some dating back over a century. This could make putting a trail through such a quagmire very time consuming and expensive. Depending on who actually owns the property (sometimes the land is just leased by the utility via an easement), the cost and difficulty of obtaining permission for public use could increase exponentially.

photo of dog walkers along power lines

On the Washington & old Dominion Trail in northern Virginia

However in cases where the city owns the ROW, a trail may have a much more favorable chance of succeeding by allowing the city to expand their recreational facilities at relatively low cost. Some existing trails such as these were accomplished with little more than a handshake or general agreement.

In addition to navigating the complex property ownership structure, issues such as liability, vandalism and electromagnetic fields (EMF) may also prove to be concerns voiced by utilities. All of these must be addressed, but in the majority of situations these issues should not ultimately be a barrier to a successful trail project. Utilities must ensure that they have the appropriate safeguards in place and have worked with the community, government and authorities in order to protect themselves from a legal standpoint.

Partnerships with multiple entities are critical to the success of a transmission trail project. These partnerships can be mutually beneficial in several ways. Not only does this provide the city or parks department a wonderful addition to its trails system, but if the city maintains the trail it could cut down on maintenance costs for the utility. Similar trails have also shown to be an economic boost to the area. There is no debating it, utilities around the country are often sorely in need of a public image boost, and a popular recreational space provided by a utility can do just that.

Transmission ROWs offer a unique opportunity to provide public spaces that can be relatively easily obtained, especially when considering the often insurmountable barriers present when reclaiming urban spaces for public use. Residents, utility companies, city employees and politicians should all feel that they have a voice to spur on these transmission trail projects around the country. All parties need to be open to this opportunity and the benefits that it can bring to everyone in the community.

Recently a state bill was passed to allow for a “bicycle interstate” over 100 miles running under existing power transmission lines in a major city that is not named Seattle or Portland. The bill originally stalled over liability issues raised by the Houston area utility, but an agreement was reached through compromise between the legislators and the utility. Other successful projects can be found across the nation via the result of opportunistic citizens seeking to improve the livability and enjoyment of their cities. There is no one size fits all solution for these transmission trails, but with open minds and carefully constructed agreements these projects can be a great addition to any city.

 

 

 

For more information:

Author Will Kirby is a Transmission Engineer for Burns & McDonnell in Kansas City, MO. He can be reached at wkirby@burnsmcd.com.

arrow See a photo gallery of Electric transmission lines along trails, railtrails, and greenways

arrow See more resources on utility corridors and trail land acquisition

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