We thought we'd take a look back at the good, bad and the ugly in 2008.
Ohio trail development continued moving forward in '08 on many key fronts, despite tough economic times. The impetus for growth came from a variety of sources such as the renewal of the Clean Ohio Act in November and the passage of many local park levies. But a grass-roots push is emerging in many local communities that have embraced and understand the multi-level benefits of trails and no longer view them as mere linear parks with a one-dimensional recreation benefit.
With skyrocketing fuel prices in '08, real commuting alternatives were being sought by cities, college campuses and individuals trying to make their budgets work. The thought of elevating bikes to serious transport status was easily understood by the masses. And for those more concerned with their health, as well as the health of the environment, the concept made sense on yet more levels. As a result of more commuters taking to pedal-power (or seriously considering it), you have an increasing awareness in cities and suburbs that trails are vital greenways.
Projects like WAD in Columbus, are born from this heightened awareness and growing need at the grass-roots level. Municipalities, like Columbus, are stepping up with impressive new bikeway plans which not only expand trails, but are re-shaping transportation planning to be more comprehensive by integrating pedestrian and bike needs with traditional road and bridge projects. The plan was impressive enough for Bicycling Magazine to list Columbus as a potential best bike-friendly city of the future.
2008 marked a year of steady progress for Ohio's major trail projects, as well as some signifcant hurdles overcome. The Ohio & Erie Towpath Trail is moving through downtown Akron thanks to a bridge over the Innerbelt and a floating trail across Summit Lake, just the latest in a series of engineering feats that would be far less impressive if they were not meant for trail construction.
The North Coast Inland Trail added another 12 miles or so of bikeway in Ottawa, Sandusky and Huron Counties, while the Ohio-to-Erie Trail purchased a key 11-mile corridor that will carry existing trail into southwest Columbus to link with other networks.
The year also saw a cut in federal funding which affected all transportation projects and totalled a jaw-dropping $3.15 billion nationwide. Typically Ohio trail projects are built on and around such funding, so for many it was back to the drawing board to reassess funding sources and budget shortfalls.
The year also saw some fallout from aging trail surfaces and infrastructures, such as portions of the Little Miami Trail, that may require restoration over time. The most costly being repaving of multi-purpose asphalt surfaces and rebuilding of deteriorating bridge supporting structures. This is not likely something that's considered when most communities tackle their first trail project. But one that every forward-thinking trail group should prepare for.
Fortunately the fix for both budget shortfalls and replacing and maintaining infrastructure is being taken up by the local communities where these trails have proven their value. Once again grass-roots efforts, in the form of local trail groups, are making up the difference by rallying support and resources where the budgets fall short.
It should be noted that not all trail projects need rely on federal funding as the Kokosing Gap Trail has demonstrated by building and maintaining (and even resurfacing!) the entire 13.5-mile corridor between Mt. Vernon and Danville, Ohio. They use volunteers and raise their own funds, as needed. And they do it in grand style, their trail being a shining example for everyone to enjoy.
Perhaps the oldest trail nemesis is the familiar trail builder versus landowner war. It was alive and well in '08 with land ownership conflicts and disputes sprinkled across the state. Two prominent cases in the news were the Huron River Greenway and the disputed new trail construction in Heath, Ohio. While the Huron dispute was resolved, with compensation still being meted out, the Heath dispute is in the courts at the time of this writing.
These conflicts are not unusual. Many people love trails -- as long as they're not running across their land. And others, not just affected landowners, aren't aware that predominately trails become assests to their local communities, not liabilities. Therefore, many of their fears of living close to a trail do not come to pass.
This issue is not likely to go away anytime soon. While many urban dwellers are becoming savvy about trail benefits, their rural counterparts may hardly take notice of the subject until someone has brought it to their property line. As for the legal aspect, it appears that some of the old deed language may be vague and open to interpretation, or the counselors of today simply can't agree on how to read it. So no obvious fix for this one anytime soon. But as a general rule, it's usually better to try to involve affected property owners in the trail project so their concerns can be addressed before the heavy machinery comes calling.
Roughly 7-10 years ago it was not unusual for a local representative from the nearest Rails-to-Trails Conservancy office to visit your town, perhaps by invitation. He/she would give a nice presentation outlining the community benefits and the potential for a trail project in your area. Essentially the rep was selling the concept and educating interested locals about trails.
At the same time Rails-to-Trails was lobbying for a greater piece of the federal transportation budget for pedestrian and alternative or 'inter-modal' transportation projects: rail-trails. Along with success on that front came educating the public, often one community at a time, to the benefits of trails and potential future networks.
In 2008, with about 973 established trail miles around the state, it's clear the process has evolved considerably. Now, locals well-versed on the benefits are initiating their own projects or coming to the assistance of others. In those cases, the RTC's role is more about support and providing resources to assist trail groups, rather than preaching to the choir.
A similar evolution can be seen with Ohio's large scale projects such as the cross-state Ohio-to-Erie and the 110-mile Ohio & Erie Towpath Trails. Early on these may have been regarded as interesting concepts. In 2008 they are well-established works in progress with roughly 80% of both projects now complete. With millions often invested to build the trails through a short mile of industrial or urban space, it can no longer be said that Ped and Bike projects are the neglected step-children of transportation. On the contrary. Among other things, 2008 has shown that trail building has established itself as serious business in the state of Ohio.