Plans for trail linking river towns sparks interest

The economic possibilities of a 26-mile trail linking river towns in the Allegheny Valley to trails outside Allegheny County attracted more than just the usual group of hikers and bikers to a public meeting Nov. 30 by the Allegheny Valley Community Trails Initiative.
December 8, 2011
By Jill Cueni-Cohen

While some politicians talk about high-speed rail to connect the country, the trend locally appears to lean more toward biking and hiking trails stretching throughout the state and as far away as Maine and Washington, D.C.

The economic possibilities of a 26-mile trail linking river towns in the Allegheny Valley to trails outside Allegheny County attracted more than just the usual group of hikers and bikers to a public meeting Nov. 30 by the Allegheny Valley Community Trails Initiative.

Among the standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 were municipal officials, including Allegheny County Executive-elect Rich Fitzgerald, who pledged the county's support in moving forward with the trail's completion.

"Borough folks need to communicate with the county, and the county will deal with this situation specifically," he said. "We need your help."

Hannah Hardy, program manager for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, presented the findings of a trail and riverfront development study that encompasses 17 municipalities from Pittsburgh to Harrison along the north bank of the Allegheny River.

"Pennsylvania has a healthy, nationally recognized system of trails and greenways," she said.

"We need to broaden our idea of trails," said Darla Cravotta, special projects coordinator for Allegheny County. "Our goal is to connect to each other in a contiguous way to get to each river town."

The purpose of the initiative is to expand the Three Rivers Heritage Trail along the north bank of the Allegheny River so that it links communities and provides public access to riverfront recreational sites. The connection will play a vital role in several other trail projects, including the Allegheny County Riverfronts Project, Erie-to-Pittsburgh Trail and Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg Mainline Canal Greenway.

The project is funded through the state Department of Conservation & Natural Resources, Allegheny County, Allegheny River Towns Enterprise Zone, Pennsylvania Environmental Council and Friends of the Riverfront. It also receives financial backing from the towns in the corridor.

In addition to the funding partners, O'Hara and the Fox Chapel District Association are partners assisting with community outreach and fiscal responsibilities. One of the trail's biggest challenges identified by the study is in dealing with the railroads, because riverside trails are often created from former rail lines.

"How do we move people through those areas safely? We have to develop a relationship with the railroad," said Ms. Cravotta, sparking a discussion about the various experiences local officials have had in dealing with the railroads. "Sixteen miles of this [trail] alignment is along railroad property. Safety is the most important consideration."

Davitt Woodwell, senior vice president of Pennsylvania Environmental Council, acknowledged that the trail has been and will continue to be a long-term effort.

"We have 17 municipalities interested in seeing this as an opportunity for local support," he said, noting that every municipality along the trail has approved the concept. "But the process will happen over time." Bike lanes installed on new roadways could happen sooner, while other opportunities will have to be sought out and researched by local municipalities and organizations.

Mr. Fitzgerald pledged the county's support in moving forward with the trail's completion. "Borough folks need to communicate with the county, and the county will deal with this situation specifically. We need your help."

"Economic impact studies show that money will be brought into communities as people use the trails," said Ms. Cravotta, noting that the goal is to lead people into local business districts, but the process will require municipal cooperation. "We will need to have municipal groups working in clusters; we need to put together resources to share with these groups; and we must identify local interest and opportunities."

Allegheny County Councilman Nicholas Futules of Oakmont, chairman of the parks committee, agreed the trail development is an economic plus for riverfront communities.

"In addition to bringing in tourism dollars, the trail will also have a positive effect on community wellness and property values," he said, "because people want to live near trails and parks."