Cyclists enjoy the Ohio River Greenway in New Albany in December of 2021. News and Tribune file
Cyclists enjoy the Ohio River Greenway in New Albany in December of 2021. News and Tribune file
NEW ALBANY — The City of New Albany is hoping to receive grants from the state that would help the Rails to Trails project move forward.

The South Monon Freedom Trail, a 68-mile pathway that would extend from New Albany to Bedford, is one of the projects included in Our Southern Indiana Regional Development Authority’s plan for the Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI) grant.

The City of New Albany is seeking both READI funding and a grant from the state’s Next Level Trails program to support the project.

Southern Indiana has been allocated $50 million in funding from the Indiana Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative. The funding will be given to projects across Our Southern Indiana’s five-county region, which includes Clark, Floyd, Jefferson, Washington and Scott counties.

The exact grant allocations for individual projects in the READI plan have not yet been determined. Our Southern Indiana listed 18 projects across the five counties in the plan submitted to the Indiana Economic Development Corporation.

New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan said he believes the South Monon Freedom Trail is “by far and away the best regional project out there.” The planned trail would cross five Indiana counties, and a connecting trail would lead to the Ohio River Greenway path.

“It’s really an outstanding project that truly is a regional project,” he said. “So hopefully the folks who are making the decision in Indianapolis will look at that and agree with us that South Monon Freedom Trail should be funded.”

The city has been negotiating with CSX Transportation and the Surface Transportation Board since 2018 regarding acquisition of the railway, and the city recently applied for an extension of negotiations, according to Gahan. The city is partnering with Radius Indiana, a regional economic development agency, for the purchase negotiations.

The City of New Albany requested $20.5 million for the Rails to Trails initiative when it made its READI submission to Our Southern Indiana in 2021. However, the recommended allocation in the RDA’s regional plan is $4.07 million.

In December, the city applied for the Next Level Trails grant with a request for $2 million, which is the maximum allocation applicants can receive. If New Albany receives the grant, it would go toward the project to connect the South Monon Freedom Trail to the Ohio River Greenway.

This round of Next Level Trails, a part of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Next Level Connections infrastructure program, will provide $35 million for Indiana trails, including $25 million for regional projects and $10 million for local projects, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Awards are expected to be announced in the spring.

In the READI plan, the South Monon Freedom Trail is included as one of the projects in a Regional Trail Initiative, which includes a regional trails master plan and the development of other Southern Indiana trails.

The plan outlines the acquisition of the CSX rail corridor from New Albany to Bedford, and it calls for working directly with the Indiana Uplands READI region and Radius Indiana to create the regional trail. It also details the design and construction of the trail that would connect with the Ohio River Greenway.

The purchase of the railway from New Albany to Bedford is slated to cost $5.5 million. The portion of the railway that would be converted into a trail ends near Indiana University Southeast, but the planned $12 million connection of the South Monon Freedom Trail to the Ohio River Greenway would expand the trail adjacent to Grant Line Road with a downtown segment stretching from Fairview Cemetery to the shoreline.

The name of the South Monon Freedom Trail is a nod to the region’s Underground Railroad history. The former New Albany-Salem railroad that would be converted into the trail once served as an escape route for enslaved African Americans, who would travel the railroad by foot and in train cars.

The trail would connect with the Clark State Forest and Deam Lake State Recreation Area, and it would also be in close proximity to Spring Mill State Park near Mitchell. By connecting with the Ohio River Greenway, it will also provide pedestrian and cyclist access to Louisville via the Big Four Bridge.

Across the country, rails to trails initiatives have served as drivers for economic development, Gahan said. He noted the benefits of connecting with other communities in the region.

“The game plan is to give all kind of opportunities for surrounding cities and counties to hook up,” Gahan said. “It would be a major accomplishment for recreation and overall enjoyment of nature and the ability to enjoy the natural landscape to a lot of Hoosiers, and especially a lot of folks here in New Albany.”

New Albany Redevelopment Director Josh Staten said the trail would open up many opportunities to connect the community and the region. According to the READI plan, the South Monon Freedom Trail could potentially be the longest regional trail system in the state if the project moves forward.

“I think people are starting to see the benefit of trails for just getting people back to nature and also the connective piece,” Staten said. “A student at IUS could get to downtown New Albany or to Deam Lake. There are all kinds of options trails open up to the city.”

Staten said if New Albany were to receive the recommended $4.07 million outlined in the READI plan, the city would need to keep working toward finding additional funding sources, but it would be a major step toward purchasing the CSX railway.

“If the railway were purchased, I believe we’d be able to get additional funding to make the trail a reality,” he said.

Gahan said in addition to the regional effects, investing in the trail would help improve quality of life in New Albany and bring young people into the city to live and raise families.

“This Greenway and Rails to Trails is all part of that effort to make New Albany a place even better than it is today, and it will continue to attract people who want to be in a place that has historic fabric, and you can raise a family, stay healthy and find a really good job,” Gahan said.

The City of New Albany is also planning projects along the shoreline that would expand the Ohio River Greenway and add amenities to surrounding areas. One project is the extension of the greenway to the former QRS Recycling spot, and another project is the Silver Creek Landing project, which involves a trail branching off of the greenway and recreational access to Silver Creek.

Gahan said the Rails to Trails project is an “outstanding project” with the support of many communities, and he hopes it is “given a fair shake” in regards to funding.

“These projects aren’t easy — they take a lot of time,” he said. “The goals are pretty lined up. A lot of folks here, a lot of communities and a lot of towns are in favor of this type of connection, but need things to get through to make it happen. The way these grants are set up, they’re competitive, and I think if the South Monon Freedom Trail is a regional project that isn’t given proper consideration, it will be a source of regret for many, many folks.”
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