Building trails isn’t as simple as some people think! That’s especially true when the design goal is to welcome users of limited abilities including children, seniors, and those who are otherly-abled. Building a multi-purpose, ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessible trail that is safe, user-friendly, and also serves the transportation needs of experienced cyclists is a tall order — and for our Circuit Trails network in the greater Philadelphia region, you can multiply that by 850 miles! Not to mention the challenges associated with “inserting” the network into an urban area with more than 5 million people, lots of creeks and rivers, street and highway crossings, and more… you get the picture.
Welcome to PEC’s world as we lead and advocate for the development of the Circuit Trails! The good news is that more than 350 miles are built and another 165 miles are being planned, designed, or are currently under construction, with nearly 10 miles expected to open in 2021.
The Regional Trails Program, funded by the William Penn Foundation (WPF), is a huge boost for our effort. As part of a strategic investment in trails, WPF parked $22 million over the past decade at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, a bi-state agency created back in the 1960s to coordinate transportation infrastructure planning for greater Philadelphia. These funds are dedicated to building and connecting Circuit Trails.
Recently, the final round of Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission grants was made – more than $2.6 million for projects ranging from feasibility studies, to engineering and design (especially hard-to-find funding), to construction. Fourteen projects were funded: ten in Pennsylvania and four in New Jersey. Demand for these funds is intense and competitive! This round there were more than 40 applications submitted. As Pennsylvania Vice Chair of the Circuit Trails Coalition, I was invited to serve as one of the reviewers of the nearly 30 projects in Pennsylvania submitted by local governments and nonprofit project sponsors.
The ranking isn’t easy, but the discussion – which includes representatives from the counties as well as leaders of the Circuit Trails Coalition – is good-natured, analytical, and intense. We want projects to be successful and impactful. We consider whether the project is going to make an important connection in the growing network. Does it serve communities that have limited access? Does it recognize the history of poverty and systemic racism that have led to disparities in some neighborhoods? Does the project sponsor have the capacity to complete the project and to be successful if provided funding?
From creekside wooded riparian corridors, to rail trails, to sidepaths along connecting roadways that need to be “shoehorned” into already developed neigborhoods, the most recent round of projects funded in PA reflect the diversity of trails in our region.
I love them all, but to pick a few favorites…
- An extension of the Darby Creek trail in densely populated Haverford Township would connect several local trails and provide access to the Creek — a previously hard-to-get-to natural resource.
- Improvements to West 2nd Street in the City of Chester that is one side of a recreational trail “loop” that will serve City residents and part of the East Coast Greenway. City residents will be better connected to the Delaware Riverfront, and through-cyclists will be able to choose a “scenic” riverside path or ride straight through on 2nd Street, aka the Industrial Heritage Highway (PA 291).
- Final engineering and design for a very complicated “gap filler” that will thread the Schuylkill River Trail across the Wissahickon Creek, connect to the famous Forbidden Drive, and provide safe passage at long last for those wishing to continue along the SRT to Manayunk and beyond. This is an especially critical safety connection!
- Preliminary design for the Bristol Greenway through Croydon that will thread the East Coast Greenway through industrial areas, old woods, and older residential communities that will provide safe off-road trail for both local residents and through-users.
A lot will be happening over the next few years on the Circuit Trails network! After the huge spike in use during the Covid pandemic, interest in trails is huge, and it’s exciting to see Pennsylvanians clamoring for more. These investments will improve safety, connectivity, and I hope, will welcome many more users to the active recreation and beautiful natural resources accessible on the Circuit Trails.
Come explore at www.circuittrails.org