A $200,000 section of the People Trails will begin construction soon, starting a loop that eventually will connect State Street and the Haw Creek trail to Mill Race Park.
Backers say it should provide an attractive extension to the city’s trail system that will help Columbus businesses recruit more workers and improve community health.
The new section will link to the Haw Creek trail along Central Avenue by stretching under the State Street bridge, paralleling Haw Creek and then jogging north of the Louisville & Indiana railroad tracks before ending at Lafayette Avenue. A second phase that is likely to be done next year will finish the southern loop.
Mark Levett, a member of the Columbus Parks Foundation’s People Trails committee, saw it as his mission to push for this new section of the trail that will cut south of downtown Columbus.
“There are certain areas of the trail that need advocates,” Levett said. “There are certain links that tie the whole trail together. I was really big on the idea that all the major retail areas, all the major points of employment need to be connected by the People Trail.”
Levett, vice president of corporate responsibility for Cummins Inc. and CEO of the Cummins Foundation, said the quality of recreation opportunities in a city makes a big difference for a company such as Cummins trying to recruit quality workers. Employers here are competing against companies operating in popular areas such as Portland, Ore., or Boulder, Colo.
“Young people today want alternatives, and we have to compete against a lot of really great destinations,” Levett said.
Amenities such as the People Trails help sell Columbus, he said.
“There is a huge opportunity for people when the weather is nice. If we have the right areas connected, people will use the trail as an alternative transportation to work,” he said. “If you don’t make it as easy as possible, then people won’t do it.”
Levett said he is a bicyclist and uses the People Trails frequently. Eventually, he would like to see a spur of the trail head south, connecting the factories near Walesboro to downtown Columbus.
“If you think about making a six- to eight-mile ride to work, my gosh that would be a nice little workout for people,” Levett said. “I think that is ideal.”
Bicyclists see potential
Marissa Pherson, a local bicycling enthusiast, said the People Trails were part of what drew her and her husband, Nathan Wittmers, to Columbus. Originally from Minnesota, they became used to the extensive trail system in Minneapolis. After they graduated from college, Wittmers received an offer from Cummins Inc., and the local trail system was one of the selling points.
Since then, she has been encouraged by the trail emphasis, including a pocket-sized trail map for bicyclists the city produced.
“We get a lot of people coming in from out of town just to use the People Trails here because they have heard that we have off-road, paved trails for bikes and pedestrians,” Pherson said.
“A lot of beginning cyclists or people who aren’t very confident in their cycling abilities or their ability to navigate traffic are really drawn to that option. “
Many young workers live in apartments on the west side of the city, and having the southern loop complete will mean they can bicycle all the way to work without leaving the trails, Pherson said. For example, a worker who lives in River Stone Apartments near Tipton Lakes would be able to easily bike to the Cummins Tech Center on Pleasant Grove, she said.
“It just makes Columbus more livable and more competitive, more global,” Pherson said.
Loran Bohall, a bicyclist who works at Bicycle Station on 12th Street, said the State Street intersection is intimidating to beginning cyclists. Creating the southern loop will make the entire trail more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists, he said. And it will be a step closer to completing a loop of the entire city, he said.
“I am just really enjoying seeing it come together,” he said. “Once it comes full circle, people are going to use it a lot.”
He said the changes will help Columbus cater to the lifestyle of younger residents, as well as those coming from counties where workers are used to riding bicycles for their daily commute.
Scott Roush, who works downtown at Strand and Associates, was jogging in Mill Race Park on the People Trails Thursday. He said he runs on the trail four days a week.
He uses the trails primarily for exercise and has run on them for nearly 25 years. He runs two routes, one along East Fork White River from Mill Race to Noblitt Park and one through Mill Race to the trail along Jonathan Moore Pike when the weather is nice. He said the loop under the Second Street bridge would be perfect for him.
“The residents of Columbus are very fortunate to have the facilities for biking and jogging that they do,” Roush said. “They are miles ahead of other communities in Indiana.”
The Parks Foundation concluded its $1 million fundraising campaign for People Trails expansions last month. Of the 18 identified People Trails projects in the campaign, 13 are completed or on their way.
Parks Foundation President Dave Hayward said the first section of the southern loop is the biggest People Trails project for this year. Short extensions around Richards and Parkside elementary schools also are in the works, using federal Safe Routes to School funding, he said.
Hayward, who also serves as the city engineer, said the first phase of the southern Columbus route has been planned, permissions have been acquired from a property owner, and there are only a few steps remaining before construction can start on this year’s portion. He expects it to be completed by fall.
The section, from State Street to Lafayette Avenue, will be about 3,000 feet of trail at a cost of $150,000 to $200,000, Hayward said. All of the money will come from private donations to the foundation’s People Trails campaign, he said. The total project will cost about $500,000, city officials said last month.
Owners of the CountryMart Co-op have given permission for the city to cut across their property along Haw Creek, Hayward said. It will then cross city property at the former Bartholomew County REMC property on Second Street before ending on a lot next door to the Bartholomew County Jail. That parcel of property was treated last year to seal in contamination from a former creosote plant at the location.
“One of the nice things about staying on the north side of the railroad here is that it is accessible to neighborhoods in downtown. Where if we were south of the railroad, it is kind of separated from the rest of the city,” Hayward said. “That was one of our considerations. We felt strongly that it needed to be as connected as possible.”
By dipping under the State Street bridge, the city expects to solve pedestrian and bicyclist problems at that intersection.
“The Haw Creek trail goes all the way up to the airport, so we have got four-plus miles of good trail to connect all of those neighborhoods, and it funnels into (the State Street) intersection, which is a terrible place for pedestrians or bicyclists to cross.” Hayward said. “It is hazardous.”
He said the extension will give bicyclists and pedestrians a chance to come clear to downtown or to City Hall.
Hayward said there are signals and marked crosswalks to cross Second and Third streets from Lafayette Avenue, so trail users could easily reach government offices or the library from the end of the trail. There is a traffic signal at Third Street and Lafayette Avenue and a marked crosswalk in front of the Bartholomew County Jail, on Second Street just west of Lafayette Avenue.
The city still needs several permits to begin work, including one from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources for work to be done in the waterway of Haw Creek. Another permit will be required from Indiana Department of Environmental Management to certify that the city is not going to dig into the recently sealed buffer around the contaminated soil, Hayward said.
The trail itself will be mostly blacktop and will be at the same level as surrounding properties so it should not flood, Hayward said. In fact, the section that passes under the State Street bridge will be built of concrete to protect it from flooding, Hayward said.
“The most difficult part of this is getting down under the bridge and back up,” Hayward said. “That section through there, we are probably going to have some retaining walls to do which are probably going to be a little slower construction. The rest is pretty much grade-and-pave.”
April Williams, project and resource development director for the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department, said some donors stressed that the southern piece of the trail was one of their priorities. When the southern loop is finished, People Trails users will be able to travel from Tipton Lakes to the west all the way to the airport in the north, without leaving the trails.
“I think it brings connectivity to the existing Jonathan Moore Pike trail, to the Haw Creek trail, to the State Street trail,” Williams said. “It brings those together. I think it is also (important) because it gives more access to residents on the southeast side of the city to bring them downtown.”
That coincides with the city’s plan to improve the downtown area, Williams said.
John Crofts was walking while eating lunch from a plastic container during his lunch hour Thursday on the Mill Race section of the trails. A Cummins employee, he recently changed positions, moving from the Fuel Systems plant on 25th Street to a downtown office. He is just starting to get into a routine of walking on the downtown trails at lunch, he said.
“I use the north ones when I ride my bike, so I come down the River Road one,” Crofts said. “I like them a lot. ... I think it is a good start. I think it should spread countywide.”
He said he might use the new downtown section when it is complete, but he is also looking forward to future improvements on the north end of town. He bikes into the city three or five days a week from near Taylorsville and hopes that the city and county will install “share the road” signs on U.S. 31.