City's plan to link miles of off-road trails moves ahead

A map from the city parks department shows existing multi-use trails in green. Red lines mark pending trail projects, all of which Charlottesville Parks and Trail Planner Chris Gensic hopes to see completed in 2014. (Image courtesy City of Charlottesville)

When Chris Gensic has his way, park-hopping in Charlottesville will be as easy as getting on your bike.

After years of acquiring land parcels, planning, mapping, and securing grants, Gensic, the city’s park and trail planner, is poised to launch a spate of projects that aim to link a string of parks and greenways on the north side of Charlottesville within two years, creating more than seven miles of continuous off-road paths.

Gensic was hired in 2006 to help implement Charlottesville’s 2003 Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, which outlines the city’s cycling and walking infrastructure needs, from bike lanes to off-street trails.

One key aspect of the plan involves creating a network of multi-use paths—flat, commuter- and family-friendly, and free from the traffic that so often scares off people otherwise eager to use something besides a car to get around.

So far, only scattered sections have made it to completion. The quarter-mile Schenk’s Greenway path along McIntire Road is done, as are two sections in McIntire Park West. To the east, a finished path along the Rivanna River traces a section of the popular, but only partly city-owned, Rivanna Trail, the volunteer-built footpath that circumnavigates Charlottesville.

The dead-end sections of crushed gravel and asphalt trail seem far from being part of a greater whole. But in 2014, bikeable paths are expected to connect Pen Park and the Downtown Mall to a united McIntire Park, the western section of the restored Meadow Creek, Greenbrier Park, and the Meadowcreek Parkway, with bike-and-pedestrian-only bridges spanning streams, roads, and rail beds.

So why the piecemeal approach? The main problem, said Gensic, is that it’s hard to back into bike infrastructure. In the central and western U.S., newer cities were built for bikes as well as cars, he said, and miles of abandoned railways have been reclaimed as trails. But Charlottesville poses some problems.

“We’re hundreds of years older,” he said, “and we don’t have abandoned railroads”—freight and passenger trains still use the tracks that criss-cross the city on a daily basis—so there are few opportunities for rail-to-trail projects.

“We’re retrofitting an old, old city that used to be a little town, and became much more populated,” Gensic said.

David Stackhouse of the Charlottesville Area Mountain Bike Club said the persistence of a car-centric design culture here has been a stumbling block, too.

“We’re in an age when we really need to encourage cycling, especially within the city limits and its close surroundings,” Stackhouse said, but too often, two-wheeled travel is an afterthought at best. Consider, he said, that 50 years after the completion of the 250 Bypass, there’s still no way into the east side of McIntire Park except by car.

“It’s mind-boggling,” Stackhouse said.

Attitudes about what’s feasible are shifting, though, said Scott Paisley of Bike Charlottesville, another cycling group that continues to put steady pressure on the city to build better bike and walking routes.

When he and other volunteers led a push for more bike lanes a few years back, “a lot of people said, ‘That would be wonderful in a perfect world, but there’s no room,’” said Paisley, who co-owns Blue Wheel Bicycles. But after volunteers hit the streets with measuring tape to prove that existing roadways could support a sliver of space for cyclists, he said, more city leaders got on board.

In January, the city hired Amanda Poncy as a part-time bicycle and pedestrian coordinator to help build on existing infrastructure and make the bike and pedestrian master plan a reality. Poncy said it’s a slow process. Bike lane additions are tied to repaving projects, so they’re getting built bit by bit. All the while, the city’s working to tie on-street cycling routes into the developing network of trails.

“We’re doing everything we can to try to close the gaps in the network as quickly as we can,” Poncy said. “All this stuff takes time.”

Gensic knows that all too well. The walls of his cubicle in the City Hall Annex are papered with maps that chronicle years of efforts to greenlight and build the trail system.

There are still question marks in some spots. It’s unclear whether the city will be able to build a railroad underpass to close a gap in Greenbrier Park. Parts of the Rivanna Trail, which Gensic hopes will eventually have publicly-owned, multi-use path paralleling much of its mileage, are in the hands of property owners who don’t want to sell easements to the city. And the closing of section of his northern loop relies on the construction of a controversial interchange at the planned Meadowcreek Parkway and the Route 250 Bypass, a project that would offer the much-looked-for access to McIntire Park East, but which is currently tied up in federal court. Some of the outstanding “hyphens” in the loop should be closed by 2015, Gensic said.

But the plan is to go on building, piece by piece. The city dispenses $100,000 a year for new construction, and Gensic has so far successfully sought more than $1 million in federal and state grants that will pay for the lion’s share of the more expensive bridge projects—some of which will be done as early as July.

Gensic said he’s aware that most city residents won’t know what’s in store until they stumble across a new path themselves, but he believes people will come to use and value the trails once the parts become a whole. It’s satisfying, he said, to be able to move from the low-hanging fruit to the serious sections of trail he’s been planning for so long.

“Now it’s finally at the point where I can start building the big ones,” he said.


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