A plan to extend the Western Maryland Rail Trail could be approved by the National Park Service by August with construction of a portion of the extension possibly beginning later this year.
An environmental assessment of the extension was reviewed by about two dozen people Thursday night at an open house meeting at the Hancock Town Hall.
The assessment looked at a section from Pearre, Md., to Paw Paw, W.Va., a winding section of former railroad approximately 15 miles long.
However, the preferred alternative is 8.1 miles of paved trail from Pearre to Stickpile Tunnel and from Paw Paw to Potomac Bridge No. 5, said Kevin Brandt, superintendent of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park.
The alternative has the least impact on wetlands and where bats hibernate in the winter — called bat hibernacula — in the train tunnels along the route.
Maryland has about $3.5 million in funding available for a section approximately four miles long on its side of the Potomac River from Pearre to Little Orleans, said Michele Hurt, the Western regional engineer for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Although the route is within the C&O National Historic Park and owned by the National Park Service, Maryland would build, maintain and provide law enforcement for the extension between Pearre and Little Orleans, Hurt said.
“The state of Maryland is ready to go as soon as we give the OK,” Brandt said.
The section from Pearre to Little Orleans is interrupted at the Indigo Tunnel, which is the largest bat hibernacula in Maryland and is closed, Brandt said.
Hikers and bikers could make the connection back to the rail trail by a section of the canal towpath, but Brandt said it would not be a paved surface.
“They should strongly consider making these surfaces accessible to ... other kinds of users,” said Ann Abeles of Frederick, Md.
The towpath surface would be accessible to hikers and trail bikers, but unsuitable for the disabled, roller bladers and other users, she said.
“A car-free recreational venue is a real asset to a community,” said her husband, Fred Abeles.
The couple bicycles about 8,000 miles a year, he said.
The public comment period on the environmental assessment ends next month, according to the project schedule. That will be followed by analysis of the comments, with a decision to be announced in August, the schedule said.
A second public meeting will be held today at 6 p.m. at Paw Paw School in Paw Paw, W.Va.