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Trail's completion unlocks local bicycle routes

| Thursday, June 13, 2013, 8:44 p.m.
The Hot Metal Bridge on the South Side is part of the Great Allegheny Passage.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
The Hot Metal Bridge on the South Side is part of the Great Allegheny Passage.
Phil Anthony, 38, of Sq. Hill rides across the Hot Metal Bridge onto the South Side with his son, Nolan, 5, as they ride the trail on Wednesday evening, June 5, 2013.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Phil Anthony, 38, of Sq. Hill rides across the Hot Metal Bridge onto the South Side with his son, Nolan, 5, as they ride the trail on Wednesday evening, June 5, 2013.
A biker crosses the Hot Metal Bridge onto the South Side as he rides the trail.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
A biker crosses the Hot Metal Bridge onto the South Side as he rides the trail.
A biker crosses the Hot Metal Bridge onto the South Side as he rides the trail on Wednesday evening, June 5, 2013.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
A biker crosses the Hot Metal Bridge onto the South Side as he rides the trail on Wednesday evening, June 5, 2013.

The final miles of the Great Allegheny Passage do more than end a sometimes nightmarish, 25-year effort to create a no-cars-allowed bicycle route that ends in Washington, D.C.

Jack Paulik, the project engineer who was in charge of that section, as well as a link beyond it to McKeesport, says it not only finishes the 150-mile adventure, but opens up communities in the Mon Valley and the South Side to new ways of shopping, commuting, attending entertainment events and recreation.

Tom Demagall, owner of Golden Triangle Bicycles, Downtown, agrees. He says the “vast, vast movement of local riders” will populate this section of the trail more than riders doing trips to the capital or any other parts of the trail.

“When you look at 1,000 riders on the trail,” Demagall says, “950 of them are local riders.”

Celebration of the completion of the Great Allegheny Passage will take place June 15 at an event called “Point Made.” It will feature a symbolic ribbon-cutting near Sandcastle in West Homestead, a ride from there to Point State Park and then dedication of an end-point marker in the Downtown park.

It is the end of a project that dates to 1988, when the establishment of a biking-hiking-skiing rail trail between Ohiopyle and Confluence opened eyes to going farther in each direction.

But the project never was easy, says Linda McKenna Boxx, executive director of the Allegheny Trail Alliance. That group oversees trail acquisition and maintenance by trail groups from Pittsburgh to Frostburg, Md., when the passage joins the C&O Canal Towpath that goes to Washington.

Completion of the $75 million to $80 million project involved a renewal of the Big Savage Tunnel, a three-quarter-mile cut near the peak of the Allegheny Mountains, endless negotiations for stretches of abandoned rail lines, building bridges over valleys and train yards, and delicate talks on rights-of-way with the owners of Sandcastle and other businesses.

Boxx says trail use has grown as steadily as its size. The trail currently serves about 800,000 people a year, biking, skiing or walking their dogs.

Even yet, there are tasks that remain to be done, Boxx points out. For instance, a crossing over the main highway in the Waterfront is not as logistically or physically easy as she would like it to be and will have to be improved, she says. But that will be a matter of more money and more agreements with businesses.

Paulik says he and other planners of the passage paved the 18 miles from McKeesport — with a short stretch near the Waterfront — to serve the commuting-shopping rider who would want to use the trail year-round.

For that reason, he expresses disappointment that the Riverlife shoreline improvement group was not able to complete a traffic-free link between Smithfield Street and Point State Park in time for the opening.

Stephan Bontrager, a Riverlife spokesman, says the group expects to award bids on that project in the summer. He says he is not aware of any effort to coordinate the completion of the passage with the construction of a path that will run alongside the Mon Wharf.

But those issues do not rob the last miles of the trail and its significance as “a great economic generator,” says Lora Woodward, program director of Venture Outdoors, the outside-activity advocacy group headquartered in the South Side.

She believes the trail “opens the door to many more opportunities” to people in and around the Steel Valley. She says those residents now have an easier access to the shops in the Waterfront and the South Side — or even Downtown — all of which are easily reached by bicycle.

Her group will offer activities built around the trail and use it as a route to other places of interest. Bike-rental operator Demagall says he believes this final link of the trail will open up more day activities for clients who want to explore it or the communities it goes to.

While Demagall does a great deal of bike rentals at his First Avenue location for rides up the Eliza Furnace Trail, he says the heart of his business has become outfitting trips between Pittsburgh and Washington or Cumberland. He expects that to change.

“When a new section of the trail opens, it always becomes local,” he says. “By next year we will be doing a lot more day rides.”

Seth Gernot, the founder of a Swissvale-based outfitting firm called Events Unlimited, agrees. He even sees a possibility of a real-estate market shift.

“People could buy a reasonable house in Homestead and commute to work in the South Side or Downtown,” Gernot says. “They wouldn't even need a car.”

He says it opens the door for weekend trips from Pittsburgh to nearby campsites or inns, such as those in West Newton or Boston near McKeesport.

Plans are changing right now. Geoff Clauss, director of patient and community services at UPMC McKeesport Hospital, says the hospital is sponsoring a ride June 22 to benefit the cancer center. It will begin near the Palisades area in McKeesport, but next year the ride also will have a registration and starting area in the South Side.

Because of the trail.

Steve Patchan, Pittsburgh's bicycle-pedestrian coordinator, says it opens all “of the city's amenities” to a short trip by bicycle. The number of bicycles locked at PNC Park for afternoon Pirates' games will increase, he says, as it becomes easier to get there because of the trail.

This section of trail will increase and further demonstrate the significance of bike traffic in Pittsburgh, says Patchan, who he is eagerly awaiting usage numbers being collected by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, a transportation planning group.

Sara Walfoort, a transportation planning manager from the group, says surveys have been collected this week and will continue to determine not only numbers of riders, but the types of riding they are doing.

Trail executive director Boxx confesses the completion of the passage provided many “angst moments,” such as how to design a crossing near Haysglen Street, where there is heavy and potentially dangerous truck traffic. Solving that issue resulted in a series of 90-degree turns that probably will anger some cyclists, but she hopes it will lessen the number of accidents.

Overall, she is pleased with the task that at times seemed to demand more than seven days a week of work.

“Pittsburgh has a new park, and it goes all the way to Washington, D.C.,” she says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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