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Pedestrian bridge will open access to Ligonier Valley Trail

| Thursday, April 11, 2013, 10:29 a.m.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
A crane operated by crew members from Simmonds Construction Service completes the lift of the pre-fabricated weathered steel bridge into place across Mill Creek in Ligonier. The bridge will connect the completed 1/2-mile phase one of the Ligonier Valley Trail to the borough near Weller Field.

The Ligonier Valley Trail & Bikeway project reached another milestone last week when the three sections of a pre-fabricated, weathered steel bridge were set in place across Mill Creek by Simmonds Construction Services.

Expected access to the 12-mile trail, from Mill Creek near Weller Field to Peoples Road in Ligonier Township, should happen by the end of April.

“We had such great cooperation in the community with the planning, scheduling and building of the bridge,” said Winston Simmonds president of the construction company.

The project was put it out to bid in December 2011 and was awarded to Simmonds' company, which began the process of designing the bridge last August.

“In August 2012 we got the job, by September we were at the design phase. By the end of the year, the drawings were approved,” said Simmonds.

He said the bridge was pre-fabricated at his company and shipped to the site in February.

“And here we are on schedule and nearly complete in April as planned,” he said.

The bridge is made from weathering steel or Corten steel. It has a rust-like appearance and is made from steel alloys developed to eliminate the need for painting. After the landscaping is complete this week, final approval will be secured from the project's engineer before officially opening the trail for foot and bike traffic along a portion of the former Ligonier Valley Rail Road bed.

The trail project that began as a dream more than 10 years ago is now a reality thanks to the determination of a group of volunteers and a partnership between Ligonier Township, Ligonier Borough and the Loyalhanna Watershed Association.

The Ligonier Valley Recreation Board was established by the township in 2001 as advisory to the Ligonier Township supervisors.

In 2003, they initiated a trail study to determine the feasibility of a 6-mile trail from Mill Creek to Wilpen using the existing rail road bed.

When the study revealed that 70 property owners would have to approve the right of way for the trail into Wilpen, the group decided to work on one section of the trail — from Mill Creek near Weller Field to Peoples Road in the township.

“When they found out we could not go to Wilpen, we turned our focus to the portion of the trail we could work on,” said Keith Whipkey township supervisor.

With approval from landowners Bethlen Communities, the volunteers began clearing the path for the ½-mile section of shared-use trail.

“We cleared debris from the rail bed and removed rotten timbers,” said Rose Stepnick the project's manager. “We had three stream crossings that were clogged with mud and had to be totally rebuilt.”

Stepnick said much of the trail was previously damaged by groundhogs.

“After 50 years of neglect and ground hog excavation, they needed cleaned out and rebuilt.” she said. “It took three-four years of chipping away with no budget to make small steps to get somebody to look at the work that needed to be done to surface the trail.”

Stepnick said the key to the trail has always been getting the bridge built.

Phase one of the trail was completed in the fall of 2010. A year later, when they still needed $40,000 to meet the $128,500 budget to build the bridge across Mill Creek connecting the new trail to the recreational facilities at Weller Field, they went to work raising the matching funds needed to secure additional grant monies for the project.

Stepnick said the project was funded by the Richard King Mellon Foundation and contributions from several organizations including the Ligonier Endowment Fund, the McKenna Foundation as well as private donors. In the early stages of the project, Excela Hospital Latrobe donated money ear-marked for the healthy aspects of the trail, Stepnick said.

“The public really got behind it. We got what we needed in 2½ months,” she said.

“And, it was the individual donors making small amounts that all added up to what we needed. Everybody gave what they could give.”

Last summer, Forbes Trail Trout Unlimited and the Loyalhanna Watershed Association completed a stream bank conservation project around the area of Mill Creek that passes under the bridge.

“We had a lot of things done before to get ready for the bridge,” said Whipkey about the work completed by the township crews.

“The recreation board accomplished what they set out to do with the trail and they did an excellent job,” said Whipkey.

He credits Stepnick for her drive and determination.

“When everybody else was ready give up, she never did,” he said.“When we had trouble visioning it, she took a firm hand to it to get it back on track.”

Whipkey said Stepnick moved to the Ligonier area around the same time the trail project was getting under way 10 years ago.

“Rose came from a town that had a similar trail system in place. She knew what had to be done and got right to work on it,” said Whipkey.

Before the bridge to the trail will be open for use, the crew will surface the trail leading up to the ramp with a geo-fabric and cover it with a crushed limestone on both approaches as well as some seeding and mulching around the bridge.

As the bridge project nears completion, so does Stepnick's time in Ligonier. She and her family will move to Connecticut in May.

“I am happy to leave the gift of the bridge and its value to every single person who comes to town,” she said. ‘Everybody can benefit. It's all about being and keep as healthy as best as you can.”

Although she says she plans to initially work on projects around her new house, she has no doubt she will soon be involved in other project.

“We will be renovating our new home but I'm sure I will end up involved in the next community project there,” she said.

“She will take memories with her but she will leave a legacy behind,” said Simmonds about Stepnick's role in keeping the dream of the Ligonier trail on track.

Stepnick said the friends she made on this project are friends she will keep forever.

“I had a wonderful farm here and an unbelievable experience of raising animals. I have a new appreciation for agriculture and the people that put food on our table,” she said.

Whipkey said he is looking forward to connecting the borough and the township soccer fields with the new bridge.

“It will get people off of Route 711 who are walking or biking there now to get to the soccer fields. This route is much more safer and greener,” he said.

Looking to the next phase of the trail project, Whipkey said they are working with the Ligonier Camp and Conference Center to get permission to pass through the camp's property.

“We would like to see the trail continue on to the park area behind the township building,” he said.

In the future, Whipkey said the trail could even extend through the borough and out to state Route 30.

“What it means for us is that it will bring people here from outside the area to use the trail,” he said. “I hope people will get out and walk on it.”

Deborah A. Brehun is a staff editor for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-238-2111 or dbrehun@tribweb.com.

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