Stewart Smith of York Township runs along the York County Rail Trail. According to a 2007 survey, the Brillhart Station parking lot was the rail trails
Stewart Smith of York Township runs along the York County Rail Trail. According to a 2007 survey, the Brillhart Station parking lot was the rail trails most used parking lot. Last year, the lot on Days Mill Road fell to second behind the New Freedom lot. (Randy Flaum photo)

If there weren't a York County Heritage Rail Trail, county residents' average annual expenditure on handlebar-mounted bells would likely decrease.

And whether people love or loathe the approaching ding of a passing biker, maybe they could agree about any of the numerous other ways Yorkers are spending money because of the 21-mile north/south trail from Maryland to York City.

Including things such as bike tires, bottled water, and walking sticks, trail visitors spent about $4.4 million in soft and hard goods and other purchases in 2012, according to the Heritage Rail Trail County Park 2012 User Survey and Economic Impact Survey.

The months-long study of the trail includes a tally of hikers and bikers gathered from infrared beams installed in four locations, as well as the results of 336 surveys completed by trail users.

Usage counters: The York County Department of Parks & Recreation installed the counters near Richland Avenue, Railroad, Seitzville Road, and the Howard Tunnel, said Mike Fobes, manager of natural resources.

The $600 units, funded last year by a state Department of Conservation of Natural Resources grant, count "anything that breaks its infrared beam," he said, such as walkers, riders, joggers, and people on horseback.

They use AA batteries that drain in the cold, so the count was conducted during 2012's warmer months, he said.

The beams replaced the unreliable counting systems employed in years past; for the last study, completed in 2007, volunteers counted cars in parking lots, he said.

The number of estimated trail visits decreased from 394,823 in 2007 to 281,145 last year, though park officials believe the number of visits is actually on the rise, said Tammy Klunk, executive director of York County Department of Parks & Recreation.

"It's really, really difficult for us to get a handle on the number of visitors on a 21-mile trail with a number of access points," she said. "I think our methodology is getting better ... but I think there were more people last year than five years ago."

Steady impact: The overall economic impact figure has increased from $3.85 million to $4.4 million when compared with 2007, the year of the last study.

Klunk said the jump likely

reflects the increased cost of goods over the five years.

People spent slightly more per trip on soft goods such as food -- from $12.86 in 2007 to $13.28 in 2012 -- and slightly less per year on hard goods such as biking equipment -- from $367.77 in 2007 to $356.59 in 2012 -- the study showed.

She said it's possible people bought less expensive items such as shoes, or that they held on to more expensive purchases that were made in earlier years.

Klunk said park officials use the economic data to justify the public money spent on the park and to solicit more.

The trail cost $3.7 million, a mix of public and private money, she said, and the data "shows that it has paid for itself."

Economic impact data is also an incentive when applying for grants for expansion or improvement, she said.

Bikers: The study also tracks how people are using the trail, and Klunk said she was surprised to see a shift away from riding bikes.

Biking is still the predominant use of the trail, but the percentage of bikers decreased from 71.7 percent in 2007 to 54.9 percent last year.

The number of walkers and hikers increased from 18 percent to 24.8 percent when the two years are compared, and the percentage of runners and joggers nearly doubled, from 5.3 percent to 10.2 percent, according to the study.

Klunk said the numbers show the trail is being promoted as a place for maintaining fitness and restoring health, but she can't otherwise explain the shift in trends.

To view the complete study, visit http://yorkcountypa.gov/parks-recreation/the-parks/heritage-rail-trail-park.html.

-- Reach Christina Kauffman at ckauffman@yorkdispatch.com.