Analysis of Economic Impacts of the Northern Central Rail Trail

Uses studied: ,
Place: Ashland


This study found that the North Central Rail Trail is used heavily by residents who lack safe walking and cycling alternatives on local roadways; trail use grew 42 percent per year during the first decade it was open. Both residents and nearby property owners overwhelmingly found the trail a good investment of public funds and would support state-funded trails built elsewhere in the state.


This study is relevant for those working at a municipal or county level who are interested in developing trails in rural or suburban areas near larger population centers. It is also relevant to those interested in trail investment programs at a state level who want to see how residents support these programs.


The trail runs north from Ashland, Maryland to the Pennsylvania state line in Baltimore County. The Ashland trailhead, at the southern terminus, is roughly 15 miles from downtown Baltimore. At the time this study was conducted, the southern half of the trail passed larger towns and the northern half of the trail passed through farmland and low density residential areas. There were 697,116 residents in the county in 1994.

Trail Type

The North Central Rail Trail is a 20-mile rail trail with crushed gravel surface. The majority of users are county residents, not tourists. Walkers, cyclists, and runners account for 98 percent of use; there are also some anglers who use the trail for river access and horseback riding. There are nine trailheads with developed parking lots along the trail’s length.


The purpose of this study is to understand the effect the North Central Rail Trail has on tourism, property values, resident expenditures, and public sector expenditures. The study also evaluated the experiences and attitudes of trail users, nearby property owners, and businesses catering to trail users. It is likely these findings were used to support the public’s original investment in this trail, as well as investments in other trails in the state.

The study was funded by the Maryland Greenways Commission, a part of the Department of Natural Resources.


Trail use has increased roughly 42 percent per year in the 11 years since the trail opened. The following table shows estimated annual number of visits from 1984 to 1994. The authors attribute much of this dramatic growth to local roadways, which residents see as hazardous for walking, running, and cycling.

Year Visits Percentage change in trail visits from previous year
1984 9,820
1985 38,085 288%
1986 47,933 26%
1987 41,430 -14%
1989 91,658 121%
1990 130,165 42%
1991 125,291 -4%
1992 170,565 36%
1993 249,413 46%
1994 457,540 83%
  • The North Central Rail Trail is mostly a resource for Baltimore County residents: 87 percent of users surveyed live within 10 miles of the trail. Due to its location in Baltimore bedroom communities, lack of signage from the interstate, and limited commercial development, the trail does not have a measurable tourist draw.
  • Those who use the trail use it frequently. Of the users intercepted, 79 percent of users intercepted use the trail at least once per week and 82 percent of nearby property owners use it at least once per month.
  • Users spend considerable time on the trail, with 97 percent saying they spend at least an hour per outing.
  • Over half (56%) of use occurs Monday through Friday.
  • User and property owner respondents were supportive of the trail, and investment of public funds in trails. Of the property owners surveyed, 85 percent see the trail as a community asset. Ninety-four percent consider the trail a good use of state funds and 92 percent would like to see more trails developed in the state.
  • Sixty-six percent of respondents prefer a trail to a more traditional, confined park.


The authors administered three surveys: to trail users, nearby property owners, and local businesses. The trail user survey was administered by distributing a paper survey to individuals along the trail or at trailheads, which they returned via mail. The property owner survey was administered via mail using a random sample of owners drawn from tax assessor roles. The business surveys were done as phone or in-person interviews. Information regarding property values was obtained via property owner surveys and interviews with real estate professionals.


PKF Consulting. 1994. Analysis of Economic Impacts of the Northern Central Rail Trail. Annapolis, MD: Maryland Greenways Commission and Maryland Department of Natural Resources.