Awards: American Tobacco Trail
The Federal Highway Administration's
2003 Environmental Excellence Awards
American Tobacco Trail
The American Tobacco Trail (ATT), constructed as a joint project by the North Carolina Department of
Transportation (NCDOT) and the City of Durham, North Carolina is an excellent example of turning
adversity to advantage. This former railroad corridor was once a heavily traveled route used for
transporting tobacco to the American Tobacco Corporation in Durham and throughout the heart of North
Carolina. This railway bed, which extends along part of an historic railroad right of way, had become
covered with kudzu and was littered with debris. As a result of citizen involvement and local and
state officials working together, this former eyesore was transformed into a 7-mile-long, non-motorized
transportation facility connecting adjacent residential and shopping areas with downtown attractions.
The ATT is a beautiful, tranquil and safe transportation alternative that is both economically beneficial and environmentally sound.
Durham, North Carolina was established in the 1850's as a small railhead town that provided a regional
point for local farmers to bring their tobacco crops each year for sale and transport to factories. As
Durham grew into an important textile and tobacco industrial center, six rail lines passed into the
city. The American Tobacco Corporation built major processing plants in Durham and was served by the
last of these rail lines, originally built in 1905-06. In the 1970's, when the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers constructed Jordan Lake, a sixteen-mile section of the rail line in Chatham County was moved
a few miles east to accommodate the water reservoir. The American Tobacco Corporation moved out of
Durham in 1987, and the railroad company removed most of the tracks from the right-of-way, leaving the
once heavily traveled rail corridor vacant.
In 1992, the City of Durham, following local discussion, asked NCDOT to improve the abandoned railway
corridor for non-motorized trail use. At this time a master plan for the American Tobacco Trail was
adopted. The NCDOT Division of Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation immediately reviewed this proposal
and recognized the vast potential the abandoned railway corridor possessed.
NCDOT’s Rail Division purchased the railway right-of-way for $2.8 million and leased it back to the
City of Durham for $1 a year. This opened the door to create a rail-trail corridor using federal
funding. NCDOT allocated $900,000 from Enhancement Funds and took on the design responsibilities of
the project. NCDOT continues to provide design, technical assistance, and support for the remaining
A 3.2-mile paved section was opened in the summer of 2000 with an additional 3.5 miles opened in 2001.
The next trail extension includes the opening of an additional 16 miles of rail-trail south of N.C. 54.
When the final phases are complete, this trail will span 23.5 miles, the longest rails-to-trails
project in the state, and will connect three neighboring counties -- Durham, Chatham and Wake. Not
surprising, the Durham Parks and Recreation Department have reported that the first phases have become
very popular. Some local residents have purchased bicycles for the first time, being able to now cycle
safely on the trail. The trail is also not only being used for recreation, but as a transportation
corridor for pedestrian and bicycling commuters traveling to and from work. An entrance point for the
trail is not far from the Durham Freeway (N.C. 147) and is adjacent to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park,
home of the minor league baseball team, the Durham Bulls.
The project plans for a 10-foot wide, paved trail from the athletic park south to Scott King Road,
in Durham County. The remaining Durham section and all of the Chatham and Wake sections are planned
as a natural surface trail. The paved sections of the trail will be open to pedestrians and bicyclists,
and the unpaved sections will be open to equestrians, as well. Several distinguishing pedestrian/bicycle
bridges and tunnels have been constructed across roadways to provide safe and easily accessible routes
to all types of trail goers.
The next crucial phase of the project will be to construct a pedestrian/bicycle bridge over I-40 connecting
a recently opened shopping mall and suburban area to the north side of the interstate and the downtown
Durham area. More than $1.1 million in federal and state funding has already been set aside for the bridge
and its connecting approaches. As the trail progresses south, it will run along Jordan Lake, a lake
operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and home to the state’s largest summer population of bald
eagles. At Jordan Lake, trail goers will be able to access a three-mile connecting trail to a proposed
Bald Eagle Observatory. The trail will continue to progress south through several subdivisions and will
conclude at a new city park designed as the ATT’s southern starting point. The cities of Apex, Cary and
Durham also plan to connect several other local greenways to the American Tobacco Trail. When complete,
the ATT will connect over seventy miles of non-motorized greenway routes.
The American Tobacco Trail is a project the local communities and DOT are particularly proud of -- a
once overgrown rail bed that has been transformed and brought back to life as a non-motorized
transportation corridor. Traversing the heart of downtown Durham, the new trail provides an enriched
sense of community, skirting neighborhoods and offering breathtaking views of the city. In addition,
the American Tobacco Trail has been designated as part of the East Coast Greenway, a project that
will eventually extend pedestrian trails from Maine to Florida.
The American Tobacco Trail is one of North Carolina's premier alternative transportation corridors
and serves as an exemplary project for partnering with local communities and agencies. The ATT is
unique in that it brings together many of the areas older neighborhoods and its rapidly developing
neighborhoods such as south Durham. In addition to hiking, walking, bicycling, and, in some places,
equestrian use, the American Tobacco Trail supports historic preservation, nature study, beautification,
and the natural environment. The ATT is a perfect example of how to bring together several diverse
partnerships and create a model alternative transportation route which transverses through rural,
urban and suburban landscapes without hindering its surrounding environments.