Great Allegheny Passage, other trails could receive national route signage
Designated U.S. highway routes have been around for almost 90 years. Motorists who use the numeric routes to reach destinations near and far usually can find their way pretty easily by following the familiar marker signs that bear an iconic shield with the route number within.
Less well-known is the U.S. Bicycle Route System, which dates back to the 1970s but has only seen notable growth for the last decade or so. The concept is similar to the highway system — establishing designated routes that connect urban, suburban and rural areas across the country to one another — but with the added criteria that the roads must be safe and appropriate for cycling.
U.S. Bicycle Routes already are in 40 states, and Pennsylvania soon may be added to that group.
An effort is under way to have the Great Allegheny Passage and other local trails designated as part of U.S. Bike Route 50.
“We're very much in favor of it,” said Jim Sanders, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for PennDOT. He said such designation could boost bicycle tourism within the state and make it easier for cyclists to map their journeys ahead of time. Sanders said roughly half the phone calls and emails he gets about trails are from Europeans with questions about bicycle routes and cycling laws.
Sanders said PennDOT is actively working on applying for the U.S. Bike Route 50 overlay on the Great Allegheny Passage, the Clairton Connector segment of the Steel Valley Trail and the Montour and Panhandle trails. He hopes to apply to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which assigns route numbers on a national level, this fall.
Sanders said work on the application process may not have been proceeding as quickly as some cycling advocates would like simply because of a lack of manpower at the state level, but he believes the issue will receive more attention later this summer when proposed departmental changes take effect at PennDOT. Those changes include moving the bike and pedestrian division from the bureau of project delivery to the division of multimodal transportation.
Before the application can go to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, PennDOT will have to gather endorsements from municipalities and organizations with interest in the route and have the route evaluated by the state's Pedalcycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.
Sanders said support for an interstate bicycle route in Maryland is helping to nudge the issue along in Pennsylvania.
Maryland, which is home to part of the Great Allegheny Passage and the connecting C&O Canal Towpath that goes from Cumberland, Md., to the nation's capital, received Route 50 designation for those trails in October.
Transportation departments in Washington and Ohio have applied to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, and could have their bikeways added to the Route 50 corridor as early as this month, according to Adventure Cycling Association of Missoula, Mont. That cycling group is doing much of the coordination on the national system.
According to Adventure Cycling, Pennsylvania could receive its designation this year if it applies in the fall.
Adventure Cycling executive director Jim Sayer said developing a national route system will help trail communities tap into a growing interest in bicycle tourism.
“Having a preset, vetted system of routes is very appealing to someone who doesn't have time to research it themselves,” said Sayer, adding that national trail networks are growing in popularity around the world.
Adventure Cycling roles in the development of the national network include technical assistance, coordination and outreach to states, and generating interest in a national network of bike routes.
Upon completion, U.S. Bike Route 50 will start in the nation's capital and end in San Francisco.
Locally, there is support for the designation from trail officials, who say it should lead to improved signage along the route, though they say they don't expect a lot of other immediate tangible benefits.
“It's neat but I don't think it's going to be a huge changer,” said Allegheny Trail Alliance president Linda McKenna Boxx. “The most we're hoping to get out of it is a couple free signs.”
That's because there is no funding component attached to the route designation, though Boxx allowed that state transportation departments might make funding of a trail a priority because of its national designation.
“Over the course of time,” she said, it could lead to “better upgrades to accommodate cyclists.”
Jim Taggart of the Steel Valley Trail Council noted there is already an effort under way to improve signs along the Clairton Connector that runs through Glassport and connects the Great Allegheny Passage in McKeesport with the Montour Trail in Clairton. Those signs and trail markers should be installed early this summer.
Taggart believes the national route designation will help advance the region's profile in the cycling world.
“We're a little bit behind in terms of getting bike routes established across the United States,” Taggart said.
Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or firstname.lastname@example.org.