CHARLESTON — A panel of West Virginia lawmakers heard arguments for greater accommodations for off-road vehicle and electric bicycle use during the state’s interim legislative session Sunday.
State recreation officials filled in the Select Infrastructure Committee on what economic benefits and logistical challenges they expect would come from developing public rights of way for off-road vehicles connecting West Virginia towns with recreational trail systems.
Jeffrey Lusk, executive director of the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority, said the Hatfield-McCoy trail system spans 1,000 miles and connects to 17 towns and cities.
The Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority is a quasi-governmental agency created by the state Legislature in 1996 to build and maintain recreational trails in southern West Virginia.
Lusk said the trail system gives those places direct access to recreation-powered economic growth — a benefit he lamented was unavailable to many towns and cities near the trail system but not connected to it.
Lusk touted the “luxury” that all-terrain and utility-terrain vehicle trail riders have of riding out of bed and breakfasts through towns onto the trail system.
“(In) other parts of the state, unless you have a street-legal ATV, you’re not afforded this luxury, especially if you have a little bit of a drive,” Lusk said at the committee’s meeting at Cacapon State Park in Berkeley Springs. “ … You don’t have that accessibility without getting up on public highways.”
Expanding connections between the trail system and municipalities would decrease off-road vehicle use on public highways and increase economic diversification through off-highway rentals, campgrounds, restaurants and cabins, Lusk predicted.
Building an adjacent lane along public highways for off-road vehicles could keep municipalities from having to acquire property and rights of way to build trail network connectivity, Lusk told the committee.
“Adding an adjacent lane to the public road could really help with economic development in our area, especially in southern West Virginia, where you’ve got these towns that are three miles or five miles or six miles away from a connector to our trail system,” Lusk said.
Lusk suggested he hadn’t known that lawmakers were considering creating parallel roads along designated highways for off-road vehicles until two weeks ago.
“We didn’t even know this was being considered until we got the call to come up here, so I’m two weeks into even knowing this was on the table,” Lusk said, telling the committee he had no estimate for what parallel road construction would cost or how many miles of road would be needed to be built.
“I think it might be beneficial for us to hear what we’re talking about as far as numbers,” Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, said. “Are you going to have a thousand miles of roads? Are you going to have 500? 250? So I think we need that before we can really get too serious about it.”
Clements asked Greg Bailey, chief deputy highway engineer at the state Division of Highways, how many places in southern West Virginia could support a parallel road along highways.
“I’m not sure I could really hazard a guess as to the actual number,” Bailey replied. “The answer to that, I think, would be very, very site-specific and situational. It’s not an, ‘OK, let’s just build a road parallel.’”
Bailey named physical space, intersections and design elements accounting for motorist speed as three likely challenges.
“I think the answer is, well, you show me the site, and we’ll go out and start digging in and seeing if we can figure out what it would take to achieve some of this connectivity,” Bailey said.
The economic impact of the Hatfield-McCoy trail system has fallen short of initial project estimates for many years.
A 1996 study of the potential economic impact of a Hatfield-McCoy recreation area on local economies in southern West Virginia predicted a maximum eventual economic impact of $51.7 million and more than 1,500 jobs created from construction of a 300-mile demonstration trail.
The study projected those benefits would flow to Boone, Lincoln, Logan, McDowell, Mingo, Wayne and Wyoming counties.
The report was prepared for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Huntington District by Booker Associates Inc. of Kentucky, an engineering, architectural and planning firm.
But a 2020 study prepared for the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority estimated a statewide impact of $43 million in economic output and 429 full-time equivalent jobs. The study was published by the Marshall University Center for Business and Economic Research.
The report projected that most of the trail system’s day users would come from southern West Virginia counties, but the opposite has happened.
Lusk told the committee that of 94,464 annual riding permits sold in 2021, 83% were sold to out-of-state residents.
Lodging businesses have opened in support of the trails and added hundreds of beds to the project area, Lusk said.
The trail system has spurred significant economic growth since the start of the pandemic, according to Lusk.
Lusk told the committee the authority had just finished an economic development study pegging the system’s economic impact in southern West Virginia at $63 million, with nearly 500 jobs supported by the trail system.
Sunday’s meeting comes two months after another panel of state lawmakers pushed back against allowing off-road vehicles in state parks following opposition from two retired state park system leaders.
Members of the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Subcommittee frowned upon off-road vehicle use at state parks at a state interim legislative committee meeting in September after retired West Virginia State Parks Chief Sam England and retired West Virginia State Parks Superintendent Scott Durham argued against it.
England and Durham reported that a proliferation of off-road vehicles and the noise they make have “displaced” visitors who went to Cabwaylingo State Forest for nonmotorized recreation since the Wayne County site began allowing such vehicles on its trails as part of a pilot project in 2019.
At Sunday’s Select Infrastructure Committee meeting, Brad Reed, chief of the Parks and Recreation Section of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, said West Virginia State Parks is “not blind” to the success of the Hatfield-McCoy trail system and has to balance environmental preservation with wearing a “business hat.”
With Senate Bill 690 of 2020, the Legislature approved registered all-terrain and utility-terrain vehicles and pneumatic-tired military vehicles as “street-legal” but prohibited from traveling more than 20 miles on a highway with centerline pavement markings.
Later in the Select Infrastructure Committee’s meeting, lawmakers heard from an executive of Davisville-based electric bicycle manufacturer Fission Cycles LLC who lobbied them to expand the in-state legality of electric bicycles.
Electric bicycles have a small electric motor that helps power the bike.
State code currently doesn’t provide for Class 2 electric bicycles, known as e-bikes. The National Park Service has defined that class of e-bikes as including bicycles with motors that may be used only to propel the bike and that can’t assist when the bike reaches 20 mph.
State code does provide for Class 1 and Class 3 e-bikes.
Class 1 e-bikes have motors that assist only when the rider is pedaling and stop assisting when the bike reaches 20 mph, according to state code. Class 3 e-bikes have motors that assist only when the rider is pedaling and that stop assisting when the bike reaches 28 mph, per state code.
Joseph Overbaugh, chief operating officer of Fission Cycles LLC, argued the state’s requirement that Class 3 e-bikes be equipped with a speedometer is superfluous.
Overbaugh noted that state code prohibits use of Class 3 e-bikes on bicycle paths, multiuse trails or single-use trails unless they’re within a highway or roadway, although local municipalities can specifically allow that use.
Overbaugh said he was working on a bill with Delegate Heather Tully, R-Nicholas, for the 2023 regular legislative session that eases state e-bike restrictions.