Blairsville planners searching for feasible trail routes
Community promoters would love to be able to say that "all trails lead to Blairsville."
But, before that statement can move closer to reality and Blairsville can lay claim to the role of hub in a regional trail system, local planners must find feasible routes for crossing a few miles that lie between the borough and nearby hiking and biking paths.
More than 25 people turned out Tuesday at the Blairsville Community Center for the first of two sessions intended to solicit public input on various options being weighed for connecting downtown Blairsville with the Hoodlebug Trail about 5 miles to the east and the West Penn Trail about 1.5 miles to the west.
A second session is set for noon Saturday, also at the community center. In addition, those with Internet access can offer input online through next week by selecting a trail study section of Indiana County's Web site at www.countyofindiana.org .
A map on the site shows various potential routes that have been discussed for extending the trails into Blairsville.
Laura Hawkins, moderator for Tuesday's session and coordinator of a connectivity study for the local trails, pointed out that closing the gap between the trails will help link Blairsville to a much larger network of existing and planned biking paths. That includes the Ghost Town Trail that offers access from the Hoodlebug to Ebensburg and, perhaps someday, to Johnstown, as well as potential links to the west to a nearly complete route from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., and another planned north to Erie.
"There's a lot we're really connecting to by implementing this project," Hawkins said.
Such longer-distance trail excursions, she noted, can help attract new residents as well as tourists who are interested in hiking and biking.
"People looking to relocate are counting on that as an amenity," she said. "It's become an expectation, and it's an important marketing tool for communities as they strive to reinvent themselves."
The connectivity study is weighing options for linking the Hoodlebug and West Penn routes with a local Blairsville trail loop that will thread through the downtown business district and along the Conemaugh River. State funding recently was approved for development of the long-planned Blairsville loop.
Hawkins said that the most likely "out and back" route for local biking enthusiasts in Blairsville is taking a ride on the West Penn Trail -- which heads to Saltsburg, roughly following an abandoned rail line.
Currently, residents can access that trail by hauling or riding their bikes along Rt. 217 North through Burrell Township to a trailhead off Newport Road. But, Hawkins pointed out, that section of Rt. 217 presents several hazards for bikers, including tight curves, truck traffic and "no berm to speak of."
Hawkins said planners have ruled out developing a trail link that skirts between the Conemaugh River and an active Norfolk Southern rail line due to deep gorges that are too large to span with a bridge.
Three other main options are being considered for linking to the West Penn Trail, all of which would require approval from Norfolk Southern officials.
One rail-with-trail option would be the existing Norfolk Southern right-of-way into town, using an existing railroad bridge over North Walnut Street. Another would follow the rail right-of-way for about half the distance and existing local streets for the remainder but would be limited by proximity to a natural gas line.
A third option would avoid paralleling the Norfolk Southern line but would involve an overhead crossing near the former Ranson Avenue bridge. It would involve a higher construction cost as well as approvals for crossing several private properties to connect with Blairsville's in-town trail along the Conemaugh River at the west end of the borough.
Hawkins said planners have not devoted much attention to making a connection to the West Penn Trail on the opposite side of the Conemaugh, in Derry Township, in part due to greater flooding concerns there. She also noted that the Conemaugh Valley Conservancy, which operates the West Penn Trail, recently completed construction of the Q-Span pedestrian bridge to extend the trail across the river to Burrell Township.
Much more discussion Tuesday focused on five various routes for completing an eastern connection to the Hoodlebug Trail where it currently ends along Rt. 119 near Cornell Road in Burrell Township.
Blairsville resident Connie Jellison said she enjoyed easy access to the Ghost Town Trail at her former workplace in Black Lick, where that trail connects with the Hoodlebug. Both trails are operated by Indiana County Parks and Trails.
"I'd love to be able to get to that trail from Blairsville," she said of the 36-mile Ghost Town route. "It's so well-maintained. I don't want to have to drive my car to where I ride my bike."
Hawkins said connectivity planners had envisioned an ideal route that would cross property of the 12th Congressional District Regional Equipment Center to reach Lear Road, which passes under Rt. 22 to access downtown Blairsville. But, she said, that option was ruled out when much of the lower-lying 12th REC acreage recently was sold to a coal company.
Another option would cross underneath Rt. 22 by following alongside the Rt. 119 spur that becomes old Rt. 22 -- leading to Market Street in downtown Blairsville. Hawkins noted some bikers already use that route to reach the Hoodlebug Trail. She added that an existing park-and-ride lot could be used as a convenient trailhead.
Drawbacks include the high traffic volume on old Rt. 22 and a steep ascent for bikers heading east on Market Street near the Blairsville Cemetery.
"Some people don't necessarily want bikers on the roads in town," Hawkins added.
A variation of the Old 22 route would detour through nearby private properties and in the vicinity of the Chestnut Ridge Golf Resort to offer more scenic views across the Conemaugh River to the Packsaddle Gap.
Other alternate routes would follow portions of Cornell Road and other side streets, crossing Rt. 22 at existing traffic signals at either the Resort Plaza or the intersection of Socialville and Villa roads.
Hawkins said she'd tried the Socialville Road crossing but noted the high-traffic intersection wouldn't appeal to all bike riders.
Several of the notes session attendees affixed to project maps at the end of the meeting expressed safety concerns with the Socialville Road route. Other notations suggested a few locations where new trail tunnels might be developed beneath Rt. 22.
Planners also have proposed a pedestrian bridge that would cross above the highway at the eastern end of the Resort Plaza.
According to Hawkins, preliminary discussions with PennDOT officials indicate the agency is not ruling out new bridge or underpass construction along Rt. 22.
Hawkins indicated initial contacts with owners whose private property might be impacted by the various routes have elicited mixed reactions ranging from enthusiastic support to those who reject having a public trail pass through their backyard.
She said input received from the public at the community center sessions and online will help planners "figure out which of these routes you really want us to dig in on" for further study.
L.R. Kimball, represented by project engineer Thomas Gray, is providing engineering assistance for the study.
Other steps necessary for developing actual trail links include: prioritizing the routes, drafting a concept plan; making formal approaches to property owners and organizations such as PennDOT and Norfolk Southern whose approval will be needed; completing the ground work for acquisition of easements, design, engineering and construction; calculating cost estimates; determining potential funding sources; and recommending an entity or entities to operate and maintain the trail links.
Hawkins said a second round of input sessions are planned once the proposed links have been more clearly defined.
She pointed out that construction of the trail connections may have to occur in phases, as funding becomes available and necessary agency approvals are received.
Among those attending Tuesday's meeting was Peggy Pings, outdoor recreation planner for the National Park Service's rivers and trails program. Pings is working with the Derry Area Recreation Board and the Derry Area Revitalization Corp. on proposals for developing hiking and biking trails in Derry with potential links to Latrobe and Blairsville.
Pings said that project, which began Oct. 1, is in an initial conceptual phase. "We're identifying stakeholders and what options there might be out there," she said.
In addition to the trails converging in Blairsville, the proposed Derry trail might someday link with a trail connection that is envisioned between Latrobe and New Alexandria, including Keystone State Park.