08 Nov Trails Without Rails: A New Approach to Trail Planning

The future of regional trail systems has moved far beyond the traditional rails to trails initiatives which were prominent in the 1970s. These initial regional trail projects offered straightforward trail planning without requiring purchase of right-of-way, and exposed residents to the recreational and transportation benefits that can be provided by off-road recreational trail systems. However, the low-hanging fruit of abandoned rail corridors has largely been tapped, and communities are exploring new methods of meeting citizen demand for trail networks. This new phase of strategic planning allows communities to evaluate trail systems in a strategic manner, planning for trail networks much in the way that they would for sewer or roads. This new targeted model for trail planning introduces many opportunities, but also new issues to address. This article provides an overview of key concepts to consider when approaching the regional off-road trail planning process, encompassing elements from community engagement through trail design, land assembly and funding.

Engaging Stakeholders

The first step is to make the case for trails as a community asset. While trails are typically recognized as a component of quality of life measures, in the current economic climate every capital expense needs to be carefully analyzed. Community engagement is a three tier process, making the case in a sequential order for why trails, why now, and why here?

wisconsin-rapids-riverwalk-trailWhy Trails?

Overall outdoor recreation amenities rank highly in the perception of quality of life for a community, which is the key metric for creating a competitive environment for recruitment and retention of residents and business alike. A survey conducted by the National Association of Homebuilders found that off-street trails are the number one community amenity desired by potential home buyers. Trails can also generate real economic results. A survey of recreational trail users in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Illinois and California found that day-of-use spending by trail users averaged $3.50 to $5.00 (University of Minnesota, 2009). Recreational trails which draw from a regional user pool can expect as much as $18 per day in spending. Popular trails with a regional connection can also draw recreation related businesses trailside. On the Cape Cod Rail Trail in Massachusetts, 24 percent of businesses located within one half mile of the trail, cited the presence of the popular trail as a key factor in selecting a business location. (Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management, 1993).

Why Now?

Many communities are adopting austerity measures and facing budget shortfalls. However, in the right situation, the current economy may provide opportunities for forward-thinking communities to more efficiently focus dollars on programs which can generate economic benefit. Depressed land prices allow communities to leverage public funds to a greater degree, reducing overall project cost to the municipality by as much as 30 to 40 percent from pre-recession levels. Strategically planning for commercial opportunities at or near road intersections or trailheads can also provide future economic growth potential.

Why Here?

An effective trails plan will provide networks tailored to expected users. More information on trail planning is provided in the next section, but a trail system that meets the needs of regional residents is the goal. Residents who see a well-designed plan that adequately meets their needs are most likely to support development. An education program to demonstrate consideration for broad community goals can also be effective. For example, families are most likely to get out and exercise when they have access to trail facilities. Forty-three percent of households with safe walking routes within 10 minutes of their home met recommended activity levels, while just 27 percent of households without this amenity met the same guidelines. (Active Living Research, 2008)

Trail Layout & Design

Trails and greenways are key infrastructure investments and should be planned with the same level of detail that would be given to water, sewer or roads. This analysis takes into effect anticipated future growth patterns, existing transportation networks, demographics, topography, land prices and use patterns. Trails require significant commitment, and should be designed to meet the needs of current and future residents, with the goal of maximizing utility for all groups of residents. The planning process must simultaneously maximize trail experience and usage while minimizing conflicts external impacts from adjacent land uses.
  • Trail experience is a critical factor in overall usage. Not only do trails need to go where people want to go, but the user experience must be safe, accessible and offer sufficient amenities to accommodate desired uses. Surface materials will impact the type of uses, with paved surfaces accommodating the greatest variety of individuals but requiring diligent maintenance. However, trails passing through areas with significant terrain may need to accommodate a desire by some bikers for mountain bike facilities, or these trails may be developed by users without regard for property conflicts.
  • Trail utility involves a thoughtful analysis of user demographics, topography, seasonality and attractions. Family users are more likely to desire a flat, aesthetically pleasing corridor, while more serious riders place value on topography and distance. In the Midwest, seasonal factors may also be a consideration, such as trail grooming or plowing in winter months, avoidance of streams or seasonal water flow areas, minimized grades (10 percent maximum over a short distance), adequate trailhead facilities such as parking and restrooms, and well-situated trail-side amenities such as pocket parks, scenic overlooks and resting spaces.
  • Land use conflicts are synonymous with recreational trail planning, which typically spans a large geographic area. Despite the proven property value benefits based on trail proximity, loss of control of even a portion of property is a hard sell for many users who may worry about safety, easement issues and resale value of stranded property areas. Some strategies to minimize this conflict include avoiding active farmland areas, planning for a 100-foot trail buffer wherever possible, minimizing street crossings, and minimizing the proportional trail impact on any one property owner. This may require the purchase of more property than specifically required to avoid creating property slivers, or the addition of vegetative or other screening elements near residential properties to preserve privacy.
In addition to primary considerations, trail location decisions can also address other community desires. Properly sited trail facilities can accommodate significant storm and waste water facilities in the buffer areas, increase the development capacity of surrounding properties and increase overall property values. Once a general trail layout has been identified, discussions for property acquisition can begin. When acquiring land, there are two approaches, namely land purchases and property easements. Depending on the long-term plans for the area and the number of private property owners involved, both routes might be relevant within a single trail project. Similarly, trail segments may incorporate both on and off-street components, which take advantage of the municipality’s ability to utilize existing right-of-way for some trail segments. In either case, private property owners will likely need convincing that the resulting reduction in lot size or limitations on exclusive use will not diminish property values.  In studies of existing trail systems, the average trail-adjacent property sees an increase in value. One study in Dallas found that home sites adjacent to the Katy Trail enjoyed a 25 percent price premium within the neighboring subdivisions. (Dallas Morning News, 2006)

Getting it Built

The funding section is addressed last, but should really be a component of initial planning and programming elements. Although trail funding, as with all transportation funding (and most state and federal budget items) is currently in a state of flux, programs which have historically been available for trail initiatives are identified below. Some programs, such as the federally funded and state-run Recreational Trails Aids Program are actually available to fund planning activities, and the use of some funding sources may impact trail design (i.e. accommodating disabled users, equestrians, or creation of off-road elements). Utilizing these sources of funding for planning activities can also impact timing, since many grant cycles are annual with a long lead time for funding. The benefit of up-front funding needs should be weighed with the potential impact of diminished momentum from this delay. In either case, the sources of local match dollars should be addressed during initial community engagement activities, since these activities (events, civic donations) also take time to pull together.
The Yahara River Trail uses natural topography and vegetation to maximize the trail experience.

The Yahara River Trail uses natural topography and vegetation to maximize the trail experience.

As with many fiscal resources, government-based trail funding programs are diminished by current economic conditions. The future of the Surface Transportation Program, once a mainstay of trail funding, remains in limbo past the March extension. Similarly, the lack of development activity makes developer fee and other user-based funding difficult. However, a variety of targeted and private funding sources exist, and diminished capacity by many municipalities to fund a matching component may reduce competition in the short term. Some potential sources of targeted trail funding that remain active include: Bikes Belong Grant Program, Safe Routes to School and the Alliance for Biking & Walking, along with traditional or site-specific sources such as Wetlands Restoration, Brownfields, Conservation Funds, DNR programs and federal or state transportation enhancement programs. Additionally, communities are exploring creative funding sources such as naming rights, advertising rights to trail signage and amenities, and public art funding.
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