Imagine scanning the horizon looking for the nearest electrical transmission tower as a likely spot to access a hiking or biking trail. Then imagine yourself pedaling or walking down a paved or compacted gravel surface, surrounded by trees, birds and other wildlife with no concern for vehicles whizzing by at high speeds.

Increasingly, this vision is being realized as hundreds of miles of transmission line rights of way (ROW) are turned into publicly accessible trails and green spaces.

We are in the middle of a remarkable transition to smarter and more sustainable cities. Ideas on how to better manage energy, water, transportation, safety and public health are emerging rapidly.

Collaborative projects between utilities and communities to turn overhead transmission line ROW into publicly accessible trails and green spaces are one more way we are creating smarter and more livable cities. These ideas are win-win by every definition.

Many communities lack safe, well-designed pedestrian and biking routes. The task of planning and retrofitting trails into already developed communities can be expensive and disruptive. But existing utility ROW — often 100 to 150 feet wide and stretching for miles — has long been an overlooked solution. Those who work in right of way management know that power line ROW are ideally suited for trail development, offering many miles of contiguous land that can easily become a community asset.

The American Heart Association is vocally advocating for communities to include sidewalks, bike lanes and other forms of pedestrian access in big-ticket, multiyear transportation infrastructure plans. Many studies have shown that this type of community design and development can affect physical activity and help turn the tide in our national epidemic of obesity and heart disease. In fact, studies have shown that for every $1 invested in walking and biking trails, $3 can be saved in medical costs.

ROW and linear recreational uses can benefit utility landowners as well as the communities they serve. By proactively developing those green spaces, trails and community gardens, utilities deliver more value as good stewards of community assets while often gaining better access to the lines and surrounding trees they must maintain.

Even though our need for safe reliable electricity is undisputable, it’s no secret that new transmission projects can face stiff public opposition. Even a small number of opponents can derail a transmission project. By introducing collaborative solutions for trails, parks and even public art spaces along transmission corridors, residents and other stakeholders can more easily envision how projects to improve power reliability can also deliver the tangible benefit of more community trails and green spaces. The public involvement and transmission line routing conversation changes.

These solutions are already working in many parts of the country.

  • In DuPage County, Illinois, the Illinois Prairie Path uses several miles of Commonwealth Edison power line ROW along its 61 miles.
  • In Hersham Township, Connecticut, the Power Line Trail follows a PECO/Exelon ROW easement to connect schools, parks, businesses and neighborhoods.
  • Centerpoint Energy has provided the City of Houston with free access to 500 miles of ROW throughout the metro and has donated $1.5 million for development of the first pilot trail.

Utilities have long been indispensable partners with the communities they serve. Simple, commonsense solutions like community trails and gardens can be planned and built when there is a common vision for making all our cities smarter and more livable.

 

Can utility companies flip the script on what power lines represent, inextricably linking transmission lines with community health assets like public trails and gardens? Learn more about example collaborative initiatives in our white paper.

Download the White Paper

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With extensive experience in industry policy and advanced technologies applied throughout North America, Mike Beehler is a Vice President at Burns & McDonnell.