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Steps taken to move forward on 29-mile Allegheny River trail

| Monday, Sept. 21, 2015, 9:30 a.m.

The nonprofit Friends of the Riverfront has begun working with a consultant and Norfolk Southern Railroad to thread a 29-mile bike and pedestrian trail along the Allegheny River from Millvale to Schenley.

About half of the 29-mile path through 17 communities passes through or near a live Norfolk Southern rail line, according to Tom Baxter, executive director of Friends of the Riverfront.

It's been close to four years since detailed plans for the trail were announced by the Friends, along with Allegheny County and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

Although there has been news of proposed riverfront parks and trail segments closer to Pittsburgh in Aspinwall, Etna, Blawnox and O'Hara, there's been little action deeper in the Alle-Kiski Valley.

“We have been working with trail people for five years, and it moves at turtle speed,” said Bill Godfrey, president of the Natrona Comes Together community group.

“But there seems to be true progress, which is exciting — the railroad study is wonderful news,” he said.

The Friends, Allegheny County and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council are working with CDR McGuire of Pittsburgh on plans with Norfolk Southern, according to Baxter.

“What we hope to accomplish is to work out a solution for having a safe corridor the entire length of the 17 communities. It's going to take some time, but we have right people at the table,” he said.

The study with the railroad is expected to take about a year.

David Pidgeon, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, declined to confirm the study or talks with the trail groups. He said the railroad doesn't publicly comment on real estate matters.

“One of the questions is what can be done to work with the railroads to see if the uses are compatible,” said Davitt Woodwell, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

Physically separate, off-road, multiple-use trails or trails separated on roads with a barrier between the traffic and bikes are critically important for the network of trails in the region, Woodwell said.

“The question we ask is: ‘Where would you be willing to ride with a 10-year-old?' ” he asked.

Pressure to complete the Pittsburgh-to-Schenley segment continues to build as trail development marches on north and south of the Alle-Kiski section. The Three Rivers Heritage trail is 24 miles along the banks of the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela rivers while the Armstrong Trail has been expanding to about 30 miles from Rosston to just north of East Brady.

“The Alle-Kiski Valley is a very important section,” said Ron Steffey, executive director of the Allegheny Valley Land Trust and president of the Erie to Pittsburgh Trail Alliance.

The Alle-Kiski section is a vital part of the proposed trail from Pittsburgh to Erie.

“I get calls every week from people wanting to know how they can ride their bikes over several days from Pittsburgh to Kittanning to Franklin and beyond,” he said.

“Riders are looking at this as being a multiple-day trek,” he said. “People in the urban areas want to get on their bicycle and head to a remote natural area with beautiful scenic views.”

Woodwell added that towns that play host to the trails want them.

“We are not fighting people to get trails through,” he said. “Now communities are clamoring for this recreational infrastructure. It's better health. It's a way to get people out and market your community.”

Godfrey said: “Natrona could be a destination spot because of the artwork and the historical buildings. In the last few years, the group got grants for a kayak/canoe launch and have installed a statue.”

The group continues to chip away at beautifying and making its waterfront more accessible, and, ultimately, part of a regional trail along the river.

Trying to make way for a bike lane, Natrona Comes Together is exploring turning Spring Hill Road into a combination road and bike lane, according to Godfrey. The group is looking for funding for a feasibility study on the project, he said.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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