Planners Want Towpath to Link into 1,600-mile, Five-State Trail System

From the Akron Beacon Journal

Imagine the beloved Towpath Trail hopped up on steroids.

That’s one way to describe a brash, over-the-top vision that trail advocates are pushing in Ohio and four other states to boost economic development.

The envisioned interconnected trail system would cover nearly 1,600 miles in Ohio, western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, western Maryland and western New York. It would include eight key corridors connecting major cities, including Akron, Cleveland, Youngstown, Morgantown, Parkersburg, Erie and Pittsburgh.

The Towpath Trail would be part of that bigger system.

That trail system would be nearly 16 times the length of the still-unfinished, 101-mile Towpath Trail that has cost $95 million and taken 24 years to build.

“It’s a brilliant idea,” said Dan Rice, president and CEO of the Akron-based Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition, who has been involved in trail discussions that began about three years ago. “Someone is thinking big, real big. … It’s not that far off. It’s pretty awesome.”

Added Christine Craycroft, director of the Portage Park District, “It’s pretty exciting. … It’s something that can really happen. It’s got lots of potential.”

Local National Park Service trail planner Andrea Irland sees a massive idea packed with possibilities.

“It’s big, and it’s daunting. In fact, it’s so big that it’s hard to get your hands around the concept,” she said. “Really, it’s just about making bigger connections. But it’s very doable.”

World-class trail system

The proposal being planned is being billed as a world-class trail system that would attract bicyclists and hikers from across the globe — with visitors spending money and benefitting local communities along the trails. People could pedal or hike from trail to trail, town to town, county to county and state to state.

The system of trails in 53 counties in the five states is already 53 percent complete, said Davitt Woodwell of the Pittsburgh-based Pennsylvania Environmental Council that is spearheading the push for the still-unnamed trail system along with the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Completing the trail system probably would take about 20 years, he said.

No one is sure how much the still-needed trails would cost from federal, state, local and private sources, said Eric Oberg, manager of trail development in the conservancy’s Midwest office in Columbus.

The proposed trail system is “unprecedented… and there’s nothing like it in North America,” he said.

It is the result of what he called “a collaborative vision” among trail groups and supporters and years of discussion.

There are about 50 missing sections or gaps that must be completed to make all the needed connections, Woodwell said.

Needed connections include:

• A new 60-mile trail through Tuscarawas, Harrison and Belmont counties. It would connect the southern end of the Towpath Trail in New Philadelphia with Bridgeport on the Ohio River via an old CSX rail line. Harrison County is seeking state funds to purchase a key 23-mile section of that line.

The trail would then be routed through Wheeling and on to Pittsburgh, a major goal of trail supporters. That would create the main Cleveland-to-Pittsburgh corridor stretching 236 miles.

From there, trail users could hop aboard the completed 132-mile Great Allegheny Passage. It stretches from Pittsburgh to the southeast to Cumberland, Md., where it connects with the 184½-mile Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath Trail that runs to Washington, D.C.

• A new west-east trail from Cleveland through Ashtabula to Erie, Pa. That trail would connect with the north-south Erie-to-Pittsburgh Trail that is partially built.

• Extending the trail from Ravenna to the east to connect with existing trails. That extension would also connect to the Erie-to-Pittsburgh Trail.

Efforts to market the new trail system have not yet started and the planned trail system is largely unknown to the general public, Woodwell said. Those efforts will begin soon, he said.

The plan to look beyond Pittsburgh and southwest Pennsylvania resulted from the 2014 completion of the Great Allegheny Passage, the major trail in the Pittsburgh area, Woodwell said.

That trail generates $40 million in economic benefits to communities along its length with visitors typically spending $114 a night, according to reports.

Said Woodwell, “The question was how do [you] leverage that and go to the next level? We had to think beyond state boundaries and look at what is possible.”

The new trail system, he admitted, “may be the brashest anywhere.”

The still-needed local trails would be built and controlled by local groups and would operate under the umbrella of the new trail coalition, he said. The Towpath Trail will remain the Towpath Trail.

The planned trail alignments are generally secure, Oberg said.

Additional growth beyond the 53 counties is possible in the future, Oberg said.

The new trail system was initially called the Power of 32+ Regional Trail Network, but a new name is being sought, he said.

It is loosely patterned after what’s called The Circuit near and around Philadelphia/Camden. There is also a smaller 400-mile network of trails planned in southeast Wisconsin that is called The Trail of the Badger.

To date, 19 select partners are involved in directing the trail effort. There are scores and scores of stakeholder groups in the five states.

The impetus for the new trail initiative came from a planning effort that began in the Pittsburgh area about five years ago and looked at such topics as economic development, education and energy usage. The Pennsylvania Environmental Council was charged with investigating additional trail connections to boost healthy living.

That effort initially involved only 32 counties in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland. That total later grew to include Summit, Stark, Portage and Cuyahoga counties.

Portage County is excited by the new trail linkage opportunities and making its trails part of something bigger, Craycroft said.

The 15½-mile Portage Hike and Bike Trail her county’s biggest trail, extends from Middlebury Road in Kent to Peck Road east of Ravenna along an old rail line.

Her park district wants to acquire a right of way to extend that trail to the east to the Portage-Trumbull county line.

Extending it along the Norfolk Southern line does not appear likely, she said. That lines runs on the north side of Camp Ravenna, the Ohio National Guard training facility that was once known as the Ravenna Arsenal.

A more likely route would be along state Route 5 on the south side of Camp Ravenna and built near the camp’s outer fence, she said. It could connect to West Branch State Park, she said.

The park district has had preliminary discussions with military officials and will likely prepare a detailed trail plan soon and submit it to the National Guard, Craycroft said.

Looking ahead

The plan would be to later extend the trail to the east into Warren, connect with local trails and run east to connect with the Erie-to-Pittsburgh Trail.

That would connect Portage County to Akron and Cleveland via the Freedom Trail from Tallmadge to Akron and the Towpath Trail and to Pittsburgh via trail extensions and the Erie-Pittsburgh trail, and that’s exciting, she said.

Said Oberg of the trail system, “It’s a grand vision. It’s attainable. It’s something we can do. It’s not so audacious that it will scare people away.…The momentum is building and feels like it can’t be stopped. We’re extremely excited.”

See more at Ohio.com

Planners want Towpath to link into 1,600-mile, five-state trail system; Akron Beacon Journal 2/16/14