One of the real points of pride for our City’s parks system is the 117 miles of greenway trails. The Capital Area Greenway System has grown ever-more connected over its 40+ year history as it developed out of a flood control program and made connections with the county greenways and through-hiking trails. The next phase of the greenway system’s growth is to become an integrated part of the City’s transit network: providing car-free transit to folks who can bike or walk to transit connections like BRT or city bus routes.
This is a heavy lift when much of the City’s residents do not have access to trails in their neighborhood, or the trails that they can access do not have connections to other trails. Access is immaterial if the trail is covered with mud and debris on Monday morning, or just out of service for months and months, without any detour available. That connectivity is the essence of a network, and in this post we look at some of the barriers to achieving this vision.
Political Will – The most obvious barrier to achieving a transit-integrated greenway system is political leadership that prioritizes adapting to the reality of transportation in an urban setting. This, of course, calls for citizens to engage in the political process, appeal to their elected representatives, and, if that doesn’t work, work to help shift the tide
Funding – You have heard it before: money makes the world go ‘round, and greenways are no different. There is the land acquisition to start with, and design and construction are challenging because of where the greenways are often located, near steep stream banks. In the 2014 parks bond, Raleigh voters approved about $24 million in greenway funding, including land acquisition. Raleigh budgets roughly $2 million annually for greenway maintenance. The City has traditionally followed a slow, methodical approach, but maybe it is time to rethink that approach. Maybe it is time to prioritize a truly interconnected greenway system.
Permitting – It is surprising, but, yes, the City of Raleigh must get permits from the City of Raleigh to build greenways. Often there are state permits and sometimes federal permits as well. In the permitting process, the City is treated like any other applicant. That can mean delays, extra expense, and some uncertainty. For example, when a plan is submitted for staff review, each round of staff comments requires a new submission responsive to the comments and that means hiring the project consultants, engineers, and/or architects for extra time and efforts. I’m told that it is common for plans to be reviewed with 2 rounds of comments, but some have 4 or more rounds. The City could help its own greenway system by limiting the number rounds of comments by staff and streamlining the process for a city-led initiative.
Construction Costs – During the great recession the City accelerated building greenway projects, taking advantage of low construction costs due to the general lack of work available. Now, with a multi-year economic expansion underway, construction costs are rising. The City competes for this labor and material and rising costs are forcing revisions to budgets and re-working of plans.
Climate Change – More frequent storms with greater rain intensity are threatening the future of the greenway system as a transportation network. All you need look for is the history of Structure 106 on the Crabtree Creek trail as an example, but there are other more frequent instances of flooding and erosion of structures all over the greenway. Part of this experience is by design, the greenway was originally planned as part of the City’s flood control program, but part of it is a surprise (no one expected to get more than 1 100-year floods within a few years, right?).
The Greenway Planning Process – Traditionally, the greenway planning process has been a function of the City Parks Department. The development of the greenway system reflects this reality: we have lots of trails that connect parks to parks or loop trails that are a destination in themselves, rather than a means to get somewhere. In the 2014 Greenway Planning and Design Guide, the Parks Department acknowledges the import of greenways as part of our City transit network. But the planning is still siloed to a degree, and there are opportunities to integrate the planning process with transportation infrastructure. For example, are there on-street features that can be used to connect greenway trails that are currently isolated? I bet you can think of two or three.
Public Safety and Administrative Considerations – As the greenway becomes a part of our City transportation network, we will have to plan carefully for some public safety and administrative issues. For example, when people commute on the greenway, they will be using the greenway at night. Most of the greenway is unlit and all of it closes at dusk like most other parks in the City. Obviously, we will need lighting on the greenway. Portions of the greenway do not currently have electric service. Lots of the greenway is difficult for police to patrol or even observe – especially at night. All of these challenges, and some other related issues, need careful consideration.
We have a fantastic greenway system in Raleigh, but it remains a work in progress. City leaders should prioritize moving the greenway system into its future use as an integrated part of our transportation infrastructure by addressing the barriers discussed above. The value to our citizens is obvious, and the value to the City and region will be made obvious when people are able to seamlessly move across our greenway to make connections to other modes of transit. What would you like to see? Share your thoughts!