All photos are courtesy of John Wengert.

Requiring funding, collaboration, and various levels of planning, the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail has been – and continues to be – a huge undertaking. But now, almost a quarter of a century into it, the completion of the project is taking shape like a beacon of hope on the horizon.

Sure, plenty of work still remains. But the Rail Trail’s current leg – Phase Six – is a crucial connector, linking the northern and southern sides of the county, while providing a new vision of “the end.”

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A map showing the course of the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail. (Click here for full size version in new tab.)

Phase Six is so vital that it has been broken down into four distinct sub-phases, for the purposes of this article, A, B, C, and D. Phase Six is one of the Rail Trail’s most urban stretches, a fact that provides its own unique set of challenges.

“It’s probably going to be the most complex phase,” said Lebanon Valley Rail to Trails, Inc., President John Wengert. “Phase Eight, which is going to be the last one to be developed, will be hard too because there’s pieces we do not own. Phase Seven, which we just finished, parallels Union Canal Park, and Phase Six connects Lancaster County to Union Canal park. So, from Lancaster north, people can reach such economic entities as the (Lebanon Valley) Mall and downtown.”

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“I can see a light at the end of the tunnel,” continued Wengert. “I couldn’t say that a year or two ago. With what we’ve been able to accomplish with Phases Nine and Ten (from North Lebanon Twp. to Jonestown Boro.), things are falling together there. That gives me a lot of positivity towards finishing this up eventually. Our volunteer group is developing as well. There are a lot more people getting to know what’s going on, and getting involved.”

John Wengert at the end of Phase 5, on Chestnut St. behind H.A. Boyd.

When completed, the two-mile Phase Six will connect the original five phases of the Rail Trail, which currently ends at Chestnut St. in the western portion of the city of Lebanon, to Phase Seven, which begins on 22nd St., north of the Lebanon Valley Mall. Phase Seven was finished in July of 2019.

Currently, focus is on Phases 6A and 6B, which will follow the Chestnut St. corridor west and connect the proposed John E. Wengert Memorial Park with North Cornwall Twp.’s Glonninger Woods Park. From there, Phases 6C and 6D will head north, across Route 422 and the Lebanon Valley Mall property to the Phase Seven trailhead.

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Glonninger Woods Park in North Cornwall Twp., which will be connected with the proposed John E. Wengert Memorial Park, by Phase 6A and 6B.

Read More: John Gloninger and his lasting legacy in North Cornwall Township

Originally, Phase Six was forced to leave the former railroad bed because it could not obtain the required rights-of-way.

“They’re all unique. They all present their own challenges,” said Wengert of LVRT’s phases. “Phase Six is urban and there will be sidewalk work involved. Chestnut St. has to be realigned, the lanes will be shifted over and narrowed, and the sidewalk will need to be rebuilt. It’s very expensive stuff.”

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John Wengert along Chestnut St. at the beginning of Phase 6.

“We’re leaving the railroad bed at Chestnut St., and taking a left,” Wengert continued. “They (the current owners of the railroad bed) pretty much road-blocked us. That’s how it started. But in retrospect, this is going to be better than if we had used the railroad bed. It’s a better entrance to the mall property. It’ll be cleaner. I’m kind of happy how it worked out. It’ll probably be more expensive, but it’ll be nicer in the long run.”

Wengert said about 60 percent of the $2 million, one-mile 6A and 6B phases has already been raised, mostly through state grants. While work on those phases will commence when the other 40 percent is acquired, Wengert hopes that portion of the the trail can be completed by the end of 2022. There are no current estimates on the costs for constructing phases 6C and 6D, but they could be completed as early as 2023.

“If we hear about the funding for 6A and B in the next month, some of the engineering work can happen,” said Wengert. “We’re hoping it’s going to be a 2022 project for construction. Ideally, 6C and D could happen in 2023. It’s not going to happen any sooner than that. That would be the best-case scenario.”

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“With Phases 6C and D, we’re working with the mall and the motorcycle club (Lebanon Valley Motorcycle Club) for easements,” added Wengert. “Phase 6C is very complex, and it will include replacing the bridge that goes over the creek (Quittapahilla).”

A diagram depicting the phases of the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail.

Lebanon Valley Rail to Trails was incorporated in 1996, and the initial phase of the trail – Colebrook to Mt. Gretna – was completed in 2000. When finished, the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail will traverse 32 miles of Lebanon County’s rural and urban scenic beauty, and connect Lancaster County to Schuylkill County.

The Rail Trail also provides users with the ability to access other existing trails in Lebanon, Lancaster, and Schuylkill counties.

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“It’s gotten exponentially more complex to build,” said Wengert. “The first one was the easy section. We wanted to get in the ground so people would know what we’re talking about. The end is in sight, and it’s about just completing the vision. The challenge is going to be maintaining it, for generations to come.”

“People think it’s a county park or that it’s a taxpayer-funded facility,” Wengert added. “When they hear it’s not, they want to contribute or get involved. It’s in good shape now, and we’d like to keep it that way.”

Although it’s extremely difficult to quantify the number of people currently utilizing the Rail Trail, Wengert said the popularity of the facility has grown as each phase has been completed. Recently, a device designed to track the use of the trail was installed at the Cornwall trailhead.

John Wengert pointing to the location of the proposed John E. Wengert Memorial Park, off Chestnut St.

“The numbers keep going through the roof, especially this year with COVID-19,” said Wengert. “As we build more of it, it keeps getting more popular. It’s about improving the quality of life for everyone, for people of all ages and abilities. With COVID-19, it’s what people are doing. They can’t go anywhere. They can’t go on trips. But they want to do something. They want to exercise. They want to stay sane.”

“It’s a totally volunteer-maintained facility,” added Wengert. “Over the next 100 years, we’re going to have to figure out how to maintain it and meet the expenses we do have. We’re trying to get the word out about that.”

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You’ve got to love it when a plan comes together.

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For more information, visit the LVRT webpage.

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