The Allegheny Trail Alliance (ATA) is a group of trailbuilding organizations between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Cumberland, Maryland dedicated to building the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP.)
Like Rome, the GAP was not built in a day. As trail groups formed, they began to share an interest in developing a trail corridor that would stretch from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, meeting the C&O Canal Towpath to connect to Washington D.C. The trail groups in Allegheny, Westmoreland, Fayette, and Somerset Counties in Pennsylvania, and Allegany County in Maryland, despite having similar end goals, lacked a unifying organization that would help them collaborate.
The Great Allegheny Passage Under One Banner – The idea of creating an umbrella organization that would allow the trail groups to communicate, share funds, and stay consistent during trail development was strongly suggested by the major philanthropic foundations in Pittsburgh. The concept was introduced to the trailbuilding groups at the “Pittsburgh to D.C. Trails Summit” at the Hidden Valley Resort on September 29, 1995. Somerset County Rails to Trails Association (SCRTA) was hosting the various trail groups of the region to go over issues specific to trailbuilding in Somerset County. Linda M. Boxx had other ideas:
“So, somewhere along the line, I found out about a meeting that Dave Mankameyer, who was County Commissioner in Somerset County; Dave Steele, who was the Somerset County Conservation District Manager; and Susan Thager, who was the AmeriCorps person – I think she was AmeriCorps – was doing the planning. And, Sandra Finley and I had jumped in the car and we tore up the mountain to The Lost Pelican [restaurant] near Hidden Valley. And, on the way up, I’m dictating to Sandra what the agenda should be and Sandra is writing it all down. And, by the time we get there, we have a beautiful agenda, completely different agenda for the trail summit and it’s called the ‘Pittsburgh to Cumberland Trail Summit,’ hosted by Somerset County – that we’re going to look at broader issues. We’re going to look at everybody’s issues, and not just Somerset County’s issues. And, it was a great conference. It really was. It was a lot of good interaction between people.”
The preliminary gathering at the Lost Pelican set a precedent for the following Trail Summit meeting at the Hidden Valley Resort, which provided an opportunity for the trail groups attending the Summit to start thinking about their trail projects as part of a larger system, not just in isolation. With the Summit having this adjusted agenda, along with some “poetic” words from Somerset County Chamber of Commerce Director and SCRTA co-founder Hank Parke, drove home for most trail chapters that a chance to come together should not be wasted. The trail groups that attended the Trail Summit were:
- Montour Trail Council
- Three Rivers Heritage Trail
- Steel Valley Trail Council
- Mon/Yough Trail Council
- Westmoreland Yough Trail Chapter
- Yough River Trail Council
- Somerset County Rails to Trails Association
- Allegheny Highlands Trail Maryland
The next meeting of all the trail chapters came a few weeks later, on November 8, 1995. The purpose of the gathering was to formalize an “alliance” between the seven existing trail groups, to be called the Spine Line Trail Association. Since the Spine Line was not incorporated under its own 501(c)(3), the Regional Trail Corporation (RTC) was asked to be the gatekeeper of grants and other financial responsibilities until the Spine Line Trail Association was developed further. According to the minutes from the December 1995 meeting, a mission was set forward for the Spine Line Trail Association to abide by:
“[The Spine Line Trail Association] would provide a formalized way for the various trail organizations to meet and discuss common issues; it would allow for a mechanism for the trail organizations to speak with one voice and present a united front; and it would require a commitment by board resolution from each trail organization to join as a member of this entity.”
This precursor organization established the foundation for what the ATA would become. The name change from the Spine Line Association to the Allegheny Trail Alliance was an ongoing process; the trail groups struggled to decide on it, and the group was not officially renamed until February of 1996. Later that same month, on February 26, the ATA officially incorporated itself in Pennsylvania as an organization devoted to constructing and completing the trail from Pittsburgh to Cumberland. The original board members elected were Jeremy Muller as the first ATA President, Linda M. Boxx as Vice President, and RTC Attorney Richard R. Wilson as Secretary/Treasurer. Trailbuilders representing their respective trail chapters consisted of Dino Angelici, Marshall Fausold (Montour), Bill Hall (Mon-Yough), Doug Hoehn (Ohiopyle State Park), Bob McKinley (RTC), William M. Metzger, Hank Parke (SCRTA), Carl Rebele (Maryland), Ted Rissell, John Stephens (Friends of the Riverfront), and Bob Gangewere. The first board meeting under the newly incorporated ATA banner was held on March 15, 1996.
The first item on the ATA’s long agenda was to coordinate a “master implementation plan” to attract the interest of private funders and, at the same time, get all the trail chapters on the same page. The plan was split into three categories: construction/maintenance (with design guidelines done by Allegheny County Planning Director Larry Ridenour, and Mackin Engineering responsible for construction work), marketing (devised by Linda Boxx, Teeter Associates employee Sandra Finley) and fundraising Bob Teeter of Teeter Associates. This Master Implementation plan was put together in 1996 and then given out to private foundations in May of 1997, giving the trail groups that were within the ATA a cohesive action plan to start from while gaining financial support and credibility with public and private funders.
A month later, on April 7, 1997, the ATA had a major funding breakthrough. Linda Boxx and Rick Malmstrom from the Friends of the Riverfront acted as representatives from the ATA and met with Pennsylvania State Representative Rick Geist to place a line item in the state budget under the then-named “C&O Canal Extension” (later renamed as the Great Allegheny Passage). The day began with meeting Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) Secretary John C. Oliver III in Harrisburg to discuss what to do next in terms of funding and building a 150-mile-long regional trail. Oliver guided them into an impromptu meeting between Boxx, Malmstrom, and Representative Geist that would start the ATA’s trajectory to success. Boxx recalls the events that transpired in the meeting with Geist:
“[A]t this meeting [John Oliver] said, ‘Well, you need to go see Rick Geist.’ And, I said, ‘Oh, okay, well, the next time he comes to Harrisburg, we’ll make an appointment.’ [Oliver] goes, ‘You don’t need an appointment. Just call his office and see if you can get to see him this afternoon.’ ‘Okay.’ And so, we called his office and he said, ‘Be there at 3:00.’ He was finishing up committee hearings, or whatever was going on, and we had a 15-minute meeting. ”
“And, I didn’t know why John [Oliver] said we needed to go talk to him, but found out, in that 15 minutes, that he loved to bicycle ride. He was a road rider more than a trail rider, but he was a passionate cyclist, and he loved all things cycling. And so, here we are coming to him with a bike trail on a railroad, no less. And, I think railroads were his number two love, if not his number one love…. He said, ‘How much do you need?’ […] And, I said, ‘Well, the Big Savage Tunnel is going to take a couple million.’ He said, ‘$6 million. $6 million – Big Savage Tunnel.’ And, he said, ‘What else do you need? How much do you need to finish the trail?’ And, he goes, ‘$10 million, $10 million to finish the trail.’”
The line items, which were $16 million in total, were added into the Pennsylvania General Assembly budget in April and authorized in October of 1997. The $16 million, while authorized for use, was not allocated during this time. Representative Geist elaborates:
“The reality was that we had to go to the governor and we had to go to all the bureaucrats that controlled the money. We did that, I did that. [… ] No money in projects can be released without all the people who have to check off – state treasurer, governor. We got all the checkboxes. We got [Linda Boxx] the money.”
Political support, especially in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, would be critical to the ATA’s success in acquiring grants for development. An extra hand in the political sphere was needed to lobby for ATA needs, per the suggestion of Oliver. The political climate to build a trail was just right, but the lobbying of Delta Development, who the ATA hired in late 1997), was vital.
“As we’re walking back from One Oxford Center…up to his office, [Montour Trail affiliate Michael Zamias] gives me, within a block…my marching orders for the next five to ten years. And, he said, ‘You need to hire Delta…You need to act now. You need to be big, and better, and fast. You need to get going. You have a governor – Governor [Tom] Ridge – who’s a cyclist, you need to get going while he is governor. You have Jack Murtha who is very powerful in Congress, and he can help you. You have Bud Shuster, who is the chairman of the Transportation and Construction Committee who can help you. You need to get going – because your time is now – and take hold of it.’”
The ATA and its trail councils would do just that. The Steel Valley Heritage Trail was awarded an Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) grant, a federal grant that funded projects dealing with environmental-related bicycle and pedestrian byways. In November of 1997, SCRTA was in need of funds to meet a higher construction bid on the Salisbury Viaduct. Having some of their ISTEA grant left over, Steel Heritage Trail transferred $500,000 of the grant through the ATA, giving SCRTA the opportunity to hire the contractors needed to finish the project. SCRTA representatives are quoted with saying that this grant transfer was “a clear indication of the benefit of SCRTA’s association with the ATA.” The ATA acted as a medium for grant transfers for the trail chapters that were a part of it. Another example of funding assistance was the transfer of federal dollars allocated to ATA-affiliated trail groups in Pennsylvania over state lines to the Allegheny Highlands Trail Maryland (now Mountain Maryland Trails). In 1998, the engineering assessment to build the trail from Cumberland, Maryland to the Mason-Dixon Line was estimated at a total of around $4.5 million to complete. To help facilitate Maryland trailbuilders to match a grant from the Maryland Department of Transportation, the ATA provided $1 million in Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) grant funds originally given to Pennsylvania for “high priority projects.” Grant money from TEA-21 was secured for Pennsylvania in part through the congressional relationship of Congressman John Murtha and Congressman Bud Shuster. It’s rare for federal funding designated for a particular state to be transferred to another state, showcasing just how successful the ATA was at opening doors on both the state and federal level.
The name “Great Allegheny Passage” was not decided on until 2001. Considerations of a trail-wide designation arose in discussions about linking the developing trail project to the C&O Towpath in Cumberland, Maryland. The first idea was to call it the C&O Trail. Until C&O Canal National Historic Park Superintendent Doug Ferris,raised some problems with that name:
“[I]said, ‘Oh, Doug, guess what? We’ve named our trail the C&O Trail.’ He said, ‘You can’t we’ve already branded the C&O as ours.’ I think there’d be a lot of people that would be upset if you started calling yourselves the C&O Trail.’ I can remember thinking later, ‘Oh, well, maybe I should have asked him first rather than last.’ So, it was back to the drawing board on the name.”
Boxx reconvened with the trail groups for another meeting to figure out a name for the trail system.
“But, we were just putting things up on the board. Everything. And, by the end of the day, the Great Allegheny Passage had been proposed and I think Allegheny was in, probably, 30% to 50% of the names anyhow, so that was pretty much there. I believe Bob McKinley was the one who came up with the word ‘passage’ because at that time, it was presumed, maybe, that’s just where we were in our evolution – that each trail section would hold onto its local identity because then there would be a system name encompassing the whole thing. And so, having a word like ‘passage’ rather than ‘trail’ implied this larger system. And, I’m sure ‘system’ was in a lot of the words, too. So, we had Allegheny Passage and Bill Metzger came up with the G – what word begins with G because then we could have GAP, and I can already see the logo. And, he came up with the word ‘great.’”
The Great Allegheny Passage was voted, approved and became the new designation for the 150-mile long trail system in 2001.
In due part to the ATA’s efforts to provide a collaborative environment for trail groups and financial support from both private and public sources, the GAP received national recognition and was nominated for various awards. In 1999, the ATA was granted the Kodak American Greenways Award for not only providing recreational benefits but also nurturing economic growth by encouraging new trail-related local businesses. Proof of the economic benefits came from a joint study sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh and the ATA, which demonstrated that in 1998 trail users spent between $12-$15 dollars per person per trip, raising an estimated $5 to $14 million in total trail community revenue. The ATA received numerous awards and accolades, including: the National Recreation Trail designation by the National Park Service (2001), the Trail Group of the Year award from the Potomac Trail Council (2001), and the Phenomenal Feat Award presented by Bike PGH (2013). One of the greatest honors awarded to the GAP was being the very first trail system to be inducted into the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Hall of Fame in 2007. The award was presented to the trail groups after the Rails-to-Trails Greenway Sojourn from June 23-30, 2007, in celebration of the 132 completed miles from McKeesport to Cumberland.
The GAP, once a concept that seemed almost insurmountable, became possible through the collaboration of trail groups under the banner of the ATA. On June 13, 2013, the ATA and its trail contributors celebrated reaching Point State Park in Pittsburgh – Point Made! From the Point to Cumberland, Maryland, one consecutive trail ran on the bones of an abandoned railway. On the completion of the GAP in 2013, the trail connected with the C&O Canal Towpath to create a 335 mile non-motorized corridor between Pittsburgh and Washington D.C. Once transporting coal and steel to feed the fires of industry, the Great Allegheny Passage now feeds economic development and community wellness into trailside communities.
Author: Reed Hertzler
 Paul g Wiegman, The Great Allegheny Passage: A History (Allegheny Trail Alliance, 2013), 74-75.
 Linda M. Boxx, (McKenna Foundation, President of ATA; Personal interview about contributions in funding and building the GAP Trail), interviewed by Avigail Oren, Pittsburgh, PA, September 15th, 2019. Transcript: “Linda Boxx Interview_Final_AO Edits,” 19-20.
 Linda M. Boxx, Transcript: “Linda Boxx Interview_Final_AO Edits,” 20-22.
 Paul g Wiegman, The Great Allegheny Passage: A History, 75.
 Linda M. Boxx, Transcript: “Linda Boxx Interview_Final_AO Edits,” 23-24; Paul G.Wiegman, The Great Allegheny Passage: A History, 78.
 Paul g Wiegman, The Great Allegheny Passage: A History, 78.
 Bob Teeter; Sandra Finley, (Employee of Teeter Associates, Interview with Bob Teeter about consulting made with the ATA), interviewed by Avigail Oren, Greensburg, PA, May 23rd, 2019. Transcript: “Bob Teeter and Sandra Finley_Final,” 11-12.
 Bob Teeter; Sandra Finley, Transcript: “Bob Teeter and Sandra Finley_Final,” 8-9; 14.
 Paul g Wiegman, The Great Allegheny Passage: A History, 80; Linda M. Boxx, Transcript: “Linda Boxx Interview_Final_AO Edits,” 28-29.
 Paul g Wiegman, The Great Allegheny Passage: A History, 80.
 Linda M. Boxx, Transcript: “Linda Boxx Interview_Final_AO Edits,” 29-31.
 Ibid., 29-30.
 Paul g Wiegman, The Great Allegheny Passage: A History, 80.
 Rick Geist, (PA State Representative, personal interview on involvement with securing state funding for the GAP from a political standpoint), Interviewed by Avigail Oren, Altoona, PA, June 17th, 2019, Transcript: “Rick Geist Interview_AO.docx,” 4.
 Linda M. Boxx, Transcript: “Linda Boxx Interview_Final_AO Edits,” 32-33.
 U.S. Department of Transportation, “Legislation, Regulations, and Guidance: Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 Information,” Updated June 28th, 2017, Accessed January 13th, 2020, https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/planning/public_involvement/archive/legislation/istea.cfm
Paul g Wiegman, The Great Allegheny Passage: A History, 81.
Paul g Wiegman, The Great Allegheny Passage: A History, 84.
 Paul g Wiegman, The Great Allegheny Passage: A History, 84; Bill Atkinson, (Maryland Department of Planning, Personal interview on experience building the GAP Trail in Maryland), interviewed by Paul G. Wiegman, Frostburg, Maryland, Transcript: “Video Interview – Bill Atkinson“, 6.
 Paul g Wiegman, The Great Allegheny Passage: A History, 84.
 Linda M. Boxx, Transcript: “Linda Boxx Interview_Final_AO Edits,” 26.
 Ibid., 26-27.
 Paul g Wiegman, The Great Allegheny Passage: A History, 86.
 Paul g Wiegman, The Great Allegheny Passage: A History, 97.
 Scott Bricker, Remarks made at the Annual Membership Meeting and Awards for Bike PGH, 2013, 1.
 Paul g Wiegman, The Great Allegheny Passage: A History, 122.