CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For at least 10 years, Charleston-area trail enthusiasts have dreamed about converting the old CSX rail trestle across the Kanawha River for cycling and walking.
The 105-year-old span would be the key link -- the centerpiece -- of the Kanawha Trestle Trail that would stretch from the state Capitol to South Charleston and beyond.
Last Monday, though, City Council members, at the urging of Mayor Danny Jones' administration, dealt a crushing blow to those dreams when they "re-purposed" almost $800,000 of federal transportation funds that Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., had earmarked for the project in 2004.
City leaders always knew the Capito money could be used for either the trestle or the Florida Street streetscape.
They spent $39,300, and set aside the rest for the trestle while project supporters rounded up more money.
Under pressure to spend it or lose it, though, City Manager David Molgaard decided to divert the funds to the streetscape. He also hopes to find a new use for a $1.7 million earmark from the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.
Molgaard stopped short of declaring the project dead but, at best, it's on life support.
"One of the things the mayor and City Council have to do is set priorities," Molgaard said. "The trestle is not a priority.
"The city's priority for building is the Civic Center, which will be a real economic driver. It's also competing with an effort to build a new library."
Tom Lane, the longtime president of the City Council, takes a longer view.
"When the city of Charleston and civic leaders in Charleston have adopted long-term goals in the past, we have had a great success rate, ranging from the Clay Center to Capitol Market to Haddad Park," he said.
"If you go back to the mid-'80s, when long-term things were adopted, anyone would have thought these were impossible dreams -- to get the money to build the Clay Center, to get the money to build a riverfront park.
"All I can say is if, in our planning process today, we plan for trails and include that trestle as a centerpoint, I think that will happen."
Ten years of planning
Molgaard said he found files about the trestle trail dating back to 2002.
"To put that in perspective, the iPod came out in 2001. Since then, we've had the iPhone, the iPad --- three different versions -- and we're still trying to put the project together."
The West Virginia Trails Coalition embraced the project in 2003, according to a Gazette article. Saying the bridge was in relatively good shape, the group estimated project costs at $2 million.
The manager of the Elementis plant at the south end of the trestle offered some property there for a trail loop. And CSX Corp. offered to sell the bridge for a token $1, plus the fair market value of the land below its approaches.
CSX apparently valued the land highly.
"Originally, they wanted us to pay them $400,000," Molgaard said. "Then they ended up asking us $25,000 for the property."
Trail supporters started raising funds. They called their representatives in Washington, applied for federal grants.
Capito came through first. In one of those made-for-TV events, she handed Jones a giant $800,000 check at the Tiskelwah Center in December 2004.
Byrd's legendary powers paid off in 2008, when he announced a $1.9 million earmark, solely for the trestle project. A year later, council members agreed to kick in $475,000 after Molgaard learned the city needed to match a portion of Byrd's appropriation.
The project seemed well on its way. "This is the final piece in the financing needed to complete the project," Molgaard told council members that night in October 2009.
There were just a few more details. CSX had to officially abandon the line and turn over the property. The city needed to do some due diligence - clean up contaminated soil, do a structural analysis.
That proved to be trickier than expected. More than a year later, CSX still had not given city contractors access to their property. "It's been frustrating," Molgaard said in late 2010. "It doesn't seem to be a priority for them." City Engineer Chris Knox said he'd had to deal with three or four different people from CSX.
Eventually, though, things worked out. Consultants from Michael Baker Jr. Inc. checked every square inch of the trestle. They even sent in divers to examine the concrete piers underwater.