What does it take to build a half-mile trail in West Virginia?
Aurora’s letter was short and to the point. In the winter of 2013, she was a nine-year-old student living in Colonial Hills, just outside of Shepherdstown and across busy Route 480 from Morgan’s Grove Park. Her town leaders were applying for a grant from the West Virginia Division of Highways (DOH) to build a half-mile pedestrian and bicycling path along 480 from the park to Lowe Drive, where it would approach an existing walkway into town. And those leaders needed letters of support from the community. So Aurora shared her story.
She said she loved to ride her bike “… mostly any time, any where … so I think it’s a great idea to put a new trail near the park because so many people are driving and it’s dangerous.” Aurora added that when the weather was warmer, she often rode her bike to school, and noted that a bike trail “… will help me not bring mud into the classroom or get creamed by a car.”
The 2013 grant application was actually the second time that Shepherdstown’s Recorder, Lori Robertson, had led the charge for a pedestrian path. The first was in 2009, after she and partner, Chris Crawford, had walked from town to an event at Morgan’s Grove Park and “almost got killed,” as she put it, by a passing vehicle. She told then-Delegate John Doyle about the experience, and he mentioned that they’d tried to get a pathway in the past, with no luck. He thought it would be good to try again. “And of course,” Robertson jokes now, “I dove in head first!”
That decision led to years of navigating the bureaucratic maze of players it takes to create a public good like this: state agencies, county officials, community members, engineers, planning departments, and more. The idea seemed like a no-brainer: in a state with one of the highest obesity rates in the country, connect the town with a nearby park and housing developments, enticing people to get outside, play in the park, and walk or bike the short distance to and from town. Fewer cars, better air quality, more exercise.
So why has it taken so long? And where does the project stand now?
“The vision was always to complete the triangle,” said Matthew T. Mullenax, Executive Director of the Hagerstown/Eastern Panhandle Metropolitan Planning Organization. By the triangle, he means linking the oft-maligned pathway from Shepherdstown to Maddox Square along Rt. 45, and the more appealing pathway along the 45 bypass to Morgan’s Grove Park—with the remaining leg from Morgan’s Grove back to Shepherdstown. Mullenax has been leading the charge with Robertson from the start. “I think it was my first or second week on the job,” he said.
Because state grant funds for such transportation projects ultimately come from a federal highway program, Mullenax’s regional planning agency had to be involved. “I couldn’t have done it without him,” said Robertson. Mullenax grew up in the Ohio Valley, but as a third-generation Shepherd University grad who met his wife there, he dove right in.
Their first grant application in 2009 fell flat. “There’s a lot of competition for these grants,” Mullenax explained, and neither he nor Robertson were surprised at the initial setback. But because of the slow review process, they didn’t get the bad news until 2011. By then, two years had passed.
In 2012, the tide turned.
That October, state highway officials held their annual planning conference at the Clarion Hotel on Lowe Drive. As part of that conference, they attended an evening event at Morgan’s Grove, and walked the half-mile along Rt. 480 to get there. “That experience helped them see the benefits of a safe pedestrian corridor,” said Mullenax.
Moreover, Mullenax had identified new grant opportunities created under a federal transportation law approved in July 2012. But they required local matching funds. Robertson marshaled letters of support from a broad spectrum of the local community—residents, business owners, elected officials, and others—and along with Mullenax and Mayor Jim Auxer, approached the Jefferson County Commission for funds.
“They approved them unanimously,” remembered Robertson. “But only if the Corporation of Shepherdstown also contributed, and only if the town took responsibility for liability and maintenance of the trail.” Robertson prevailed there, as well.
In the end, Shepherdstown was awarded two grants in January 2014 that leveraged a little more than $52,000 from Jefferson County and $13,500 from the Corporation of Shepherdstown into more than $610,000 in federal funds—more than enough to cover the estimated cost of the project. “We thought we would be able to put the project to (construction) bid by the fall,” said Mullenax.
Then the surveyors came, and reality hit.
Back to the Drawing Board
When she was preparing the grant application, Robertson said DOH repeatedly told her that the right-of-way for a turnpike such as Rt. 480 was 60 feet—that is, 30 feet on each side from the centerline. That would leave plenty of room for an eight-foot path and five-foot buffer, while retaining adequate vehicle lanes. The surveyors found otherwise: the actual right-of-way on that stretch of 480 is 50 feet. The project would have to be redesigned.
Meanwhile, DOH was in turmoil, undergoing internal restructuring and physically moving some departments to new office space. Despite this, both Robertson and Mullenax said DOH officials remained committed to the project. They took the lead in the redesign, and sent teams from engineering, historic preservation, environmental protection, and other offices out to walk the route and move the process forward.
But more players meant more delays. And time is money. Two years after the grant was awarded, and with additional on-the-ground information, it’s now clear that construction will cost more than the original estimate, and more than the grants provide.
According to Robertson, DOH is currently finalizing its redesign (which will extend the path to Minden Street—a bit closer to town than Lowe Drive) and should come forward soon with several options. She hopes to share those in public meetings this spring. After public input, a Path Advisory Committee comprised of local residents, in conjunction with DOH, will make a final decision about proceeding. If all goes well—a big IF—construction could begin in the spring of 2017.
And the funding gap? Robertson remained very optimistic, maintaining that, “DOH is committed to the project and is exploring all options for filling the construction funding gap.”
Moreover, she noted that members of the community have approached her with offers to help maintain the path once it’s built.
Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, a professor of family medicine at West Virginia University School of Medicine and owner of Two Rivers Treads running store in Shepherdstown, is one of them. He’s offered to help with fundraising or organizing work crews if necessary. “So much of public health has nothing to do with doctor’s offices or medical facilities,” he said. “It has to do with the built environment and the food environment. If you have a conducive environment, that’s where health begins.”
So what does it take to get a bike path built in West Virginia? Apparently, it takes at least eight years, two very persistent public servants, lots of federal funds, a committed community, and supportive state officials.
And without a doubt, it helps to have a little girl who doesn’t want to get creamed by cars when she rides her bike to school.
— Amy Mathews Amos covers the environment, history, health, and culture for The Observer. Follow her at @AmyMatAm.