By Jack Firneno
Wire Staff Writer
Imagine getting on your bicycle in Maine and pedaling all the way to Florida without ever leaving a bike trail. That’s the grand plan behind East Coast Greenway, an effort to connect bike trails across the East Coast so that they form a 3,000-mile network of unbroken trails. The effort, which amounts to a network longer than the Appalachian Mountain range, is being handled piece by piece by various groups in different regions.
In the greater Philadelphia area, the Greenway Alliance is supported in part by the Circuit Collation, a group of non-profit organizations and other agencies that are trying to tie together 750 miles of bike and hiking trails. Starting with a $23 million TIGER grant from the United State Department of Transportation, the group was able to accelerate work on 50 miles of trails in the region, and use that momentum to leverage another $10 million grant from the William Penn Foundation.
“Our goal is for people to leave their homes and be able to bike for eight hours in any direction without ever getting off a trail,” said Sarah Clark Stuart, policy director for the Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia and spokeswoman for the Circuit Coalition. One problem, she pointed out, is that when a trail suddenly ends, “Inexperienced or families of bike riders will just turn around and go back,” rather than try to navigate busy roads to find where the trail picks up.
Three of the trails the group is considering run primarily through Montgomery County: The Pennypack Trail running from the Holmesburg section of Philadelphia through Huntingdon Valley; The Tookany-Tacony that will connect Cheltenham Township and Abington; and the Cresheim Valley trail slated to bind various parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery counties to the Wissahickon Woods in Fairmount Park.
“Trails can be really transformative to the landscape,” explained Stuart, highlighting the improvement along the Schuylkill River as a result of the bike trails built along it. Many of the trails on the Coalition’s radar follow various rivers and waterways. “They provide access to employment, transit and safer routes to schools. They also present positive health benefits.”
When the project started, 250 miles of trail were already in place as the Coalition began work on 50 more. The next step is construction of more than 400 miles of new trail. Stuart outlined these efforts at a meeting last month in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. But, with most of the bicycle trails in the city already up and running, the Coalition now has its eyes set on Montgomery County.
“There’s a lot of potential to build out the trails that would better connect several Montgomery townships with Philadelphia,” says Stuart. “You could ride from Bryn Athyn through Pennypack Park, then down to Center City Philadelphia and all the way into South Jersey.”
Stuart says she hopes to set up meetings in Montgomery County soon, where the plan is the same as in other areas: to convince the county planning commission to dedicate a small amount of their federal and state highway transportation dollars into a fund for the trails. Just a relatively few dollars, she explained, would help kick start projects and attract more funding.
“If the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission could dedicate .2 percent of its annual capital transportation dollars to the trails, that would go a long way toward motivating boroughs and townships to get their trail segments completed,” she explained.
Right now, the Coalition’s biggest challenge is competition for scarce transportation funds. However, Stuart says that less than 1 percent for bike trails is a great investment.
“Building the trails will help integrate and enhance our other transportation networks, and will strengthen our region both economically and in terms of public health and well being,” she said.