Statewide trail network envisioned in Georgia

By Andria Simmons – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A loose coalition of trailhounds is morphing into an organization with ambitious plans to create a statewide trail network.

They are a diverse group of horse, bicycle, canoe, hiking and walking enthusiasts. And they imagine being able to travel across the state on a seamless network of trails that winds through Georgia’s varied landscape of beaches, swamps, mountains, plains, cities and suburbs.

Georgia is one of only two states (the other being Oklahoma) that has no statewide trail organization. But there’s an undeniable momentum gathering around trail-building in Georgia, due in no small part to the popularity of the Beltline, said Tracie Sanchez, organizer of the Georgia Trail Summit.

“That momentum is there because there is this prime example in our metropolitan area that is changing peoples’ lives,” Sanchez said. “People across the nation are taking note. Everybody wants a Beltline now.”

Byron Rushing, the bicycle and pedestrian planner for the Atlanta Regional Commission, has an even simpler explanation: “Trails are the new golf courses.” Developers are interested in building alongside them because people seeking active lifestyles consider them a desirable amenity.

The genesis of recent efforts to connect and construct more trails was a simple challenge Sanchez received after seeking advice from the Washington D.C.-based Rails-To-Trails Conservancy, which promotes turning unused rail corridors into public trails.

They told her: “Why don’t you hold a trail summit and see if anybody comes?”

That was two years ago, and 153 people showed up to the first Georgia Trail Summit in Athens in 2014. At a second annual summit in early June, 180 people came.

The as-yet-unnamed new organization it spawned (for now, we’ll call them the Georgia Trail Summit affiliates) plans to incorporate as a nonprofit by this time next year. They plan to partner with local governments, nonprofits and educational groups and to advocate for policy improvements.

They might also tap private donations or government grants to aid completion of a trail network.

Downtown to Alabama

Rushing’s work at ARC is focused on connecting more trails around the 19-county metro Atlanta area.

“Atlanta is car-centric, but that’s not to say that we haven’t invested a lot of money in trails like the Silver Comet, Arabia/Panola Mountain and the Beltline,” Rushing said. “It’s not that we don’t have a lot of this kind of stuff. Just you can’t get anywhere on most of it.”

The Beltline and the Silver Comet Trail are a good examples of trails that should be joined together, he said. Community groups are already lobbying to link the two, which would let people travel from downtown Atlanta to Alabama without competing with cars.

The PATH Foundation also has had a regional trails vision since the early 1990s. Within the next few years, the foundation would like to see a set of trails that feed into the Beltline from the Silver Comet, Peachtree Battle, Path 400, Stone Mountain and other trails. In some cases, the trails might continue on to a centralized bike depot at Centennial Olympic Park.

The foundation just logged several recent successes, like gaining access to state right-of-way for the PATH 400 trail alongside Ga. 400 and securing an agreement with Georgia Department of Transportation to build a multi-use path through the redesigned Ga. 400/I-285 interchange.

“Blossoming all over the place”

Trail advocates can work with ARC to make a stronger case for more federal funding to accomplish these connections, Rushing said.

About $7 million per year is available for trail building in the Atlanta region from Georgia’s annual allotment of federal Transportation Alternatives funding, a pot of money administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration. The ARC is currently updating a 2007 bicycle and pedestrian plan for the region.

“What we’re trying to find out with this regional plan vision is how much is it going to cost and how do we prioritize segments for these funds,” Rushing said.

The answer will come soon enough. By the end of December, the ARC will finish its updated blueprint for trails around Atlanta. And by this time next year, the Georgia Trail Summit partners hope to be working on a statewide plan as well.

The interest in trail building from every corner of Georgia has been heartening, said Marianne Fowler, with the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy.

“The use of trails as parts of networks for transportation systems is occurring all over Georgia — in Columbus, Augusta, Athens, Gainesville and Albany,” Fowler said. “It’s just blossoming all over the place.”