A Higher Ladder: Next Steps for the Circuit Trails

Patrick Starr, Executive VP
Patrick Starr, Executive VP

A trail experience to a cyclist or hiker should be seamless, continuous. Yet the process of trail development is anything but. It’s messy, involving years of conceptual planning, obtaining right-of-way either by acquisition or access easement, engineering design, and construction. Not to mention the cycle of grant-writing to fund each step and herding the cats (PEC’s specialty) – property owners, NIMBYs, user groups, local governments, state and federal agencies – to name just a few. The Circuit Trails faces a further challenge: people want trails, but we aren’t building trails fast enough!

In recent months, more than 65 municipalities have adopted a resolution calling for the acceleration of the Circuit Trails development: “500 miles by 2025,” as the slogan goes. And we want major connecting trails such as the East Coast Greenway, Schuylkill River Trail and Chester Valley Trail completed by 2025 too. People agree that having 800 miles of connected trails in the Philadelphia region is necessary to our economic success and quality of life.

We often talk about “low-hanging fruit”… but those opportunities are getting harder to find. We need a higher ladder to climb further up in the tree.


Interactive map at: www.dvrpc.org/webmaps/thecircuit/
Interactive map at: www.dvrpc.org/webmaps/thecircuit/

But we have miles to go before we rest. In Pennsylvania we have 265 miles of Circuit Trails built, 62 miles well along, 75 miles beginning, and 179 miles in limbo. To meet our goal, we need 22 miles constructed per year — a drastic increase we targeted as a “reach” goal – doable but not easy.  In Pennsylvania, home to 72% of the Circuit Trails, that means we need to build 16 miles a year.  Oh my! We often talk about “low-hanging fruit,” the trail sites that are most ripe for development. With every mile completed, those opportunities are getting harder to find. Staying with the metaphor: we need a higher ladder to climb further up in the tree.

Mapping for the Masses

With these goals in mind, PEC convened the Circuit Trails trail building partners in December in both Norristown and Palmyra to begin to assess the readiness of every segment of trails to find more projects. The route to success is to get more stakeholders involved who can bring their on-the-ground knowledge and deep community contacts to make trail building easier.  Gathered by state (New Jersey and Pennsylvania) at tables organized by county, PEC’s partners assessed each segment of trail that has yet to be built to identify impediments and opportunities.  For instance: is right-of-way already secured?  Is a Conceptual Plan already done?  Is there a local champion that can “fast-forward” the project?  Is there an opponent who needs to be engaged in dialogue?  Which organization is going to lead the segment to construction?  What entity will own it once completed? These are just some of the numerous questions completed on literally hundreds of trail miles that are yet to be built.

But bringing stakeholders together is only the first step – we also want to help motivated trail leaders be more effective. One way PEC does this is by bringing a proprietary software, GoToTrails, to the meeting. It serves as a mapping platform that is at the same time easy for non-professionals to use, yet is built on sophisticated Geographic Information Systems (GIS) databases. GoToTrails works on any computer and doesn’t require expensive licensed software to operate.


Empowering partners

So, PEC has made sophisticated GIS mapping tools available to the masses. Why? Because trail building is really complicated. In spite of the seamless result, most trails are developed in sections perhaps a few thousand feet long, conforming to an overall trail vision articulated in a conceptual plan. For each segment the land has to be secured, the funds raised, and a responsible owner who will maintain it identified.  Each trail segment needs an empowered trail champion.

That is exactly what PEC is doing with the Circuit Trails. We are empowering our partners to “build the pipeline” to attain our goal of 500 miles built by 2025.  You can help today by getting your municipality to adopt the “”500 miles by 2025” resolution.  And if you’re charged up about trails in your community, but not yet involved in the Circuit Trails, get in touch to get connected!