A concrete future
Missing links materialize on the River Trail

SideStory: The path to Florida: Plans call for bike lanes, sidewalk

The Animas River flows under the Highway 160 High Bridge, site of the new Animas River Trail crossing. The new span, scheduled to begin construction this winter, will provide one of the two last missing links to the trail’s southern end./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Missy Votel

Durango School District 9-R’s recent Walk/Bike to School day left many students and staff at Escalante Middle School scratching their heads.

Not because they didn’t want to participate, but with no safe pedestrian route to the school south of town, they weren’t quite sure how. One suggestion was to have kids dropped off at Wal-Mart, about a quarter mile away, and walk to school from there. Another was to have them walk around the school’s track.

“These ideas seemed a bit absurd to me and not in the spirit of Walk/Bike to School Day at all,” said Dominic Schiavone, Escalante seventh grade social studies teacher.

So, instead of pounding the pavement, Escalante students and staff mobilized the power of the pen.

“Our form of participation was to send around a petition for staff and students to sign asking for the completion of the missing link on the bike path,” said Schiavone.

Last week, Schiavone presented City leaders with 260 signatures asking for timely completion of the 5-mile Animas River Trail. The trail currently ends behind the Durango Mall, about a mile and a half short of the school. Although isolated sections of the trail between the mall and Escalante

In addition to creating a great opportunity for students to get to school by bike, the completed trail would also make it possible for Escalante students to take walking field trips, said Schiavone. “Transportation costs are extremely high right now and having that section of the bike trail completed would enable us to walk with students to a number of spots on this side of town,” Schiavone wrote in a letter to city officials. “Right now a short trip, even within a mile or two, can cost hundreds of dollars.”

The completion would also be a boon for residents as well, said Schiavone who makes the 10-mile commute from his home at Turtle Lake a few times a week. “Not many people on this side of the river end up commuting to work by bike, being reluctant to deal with 50 mph traffic on the highway and broken glass,” he said. “I think with the completion of the bridge, this will open up bike commuting to more people.”

Durango Director of Parks and Recreation Cathy Metz, who oversees the Animas River Trail’s construction and maintenance, said the City has not forgotten about the trail’s missing links, despite tough economic times. In fact, she said completing the Animas River Trail is one of her department’s

The “River Trail to Nowhere” behind the Durango Mall will soon be linked to the rest of the path with completion of the “Mall Corner” scheduled for 2011 /Photo by Stephen Eginoire

She said plans are under way to complete both the Mall Corner and the High Bridge pedestrian crossing by 2011. “Things are moving along,” she said.

Metz sat down with Schiavone last Friday to accept the petition and discuss the trail. Concerns such as those of the Escalante community highlight just how important the River Trail – and alternative transportation in general – are to Durango, she said. “It’s indicative of how important it is for people to be able to ride their bikes and walk to work, school or wherever they’re going.”

Metz said design and construction bids for the High Bridge crossing are complete, and work should begin early next year. The missing “Mall Corner” link has been a little more complicated, with engineering and easement challenges. However, the city was recently awarded a Great Outdoors Colorado Grant of $505,400 for design and construction of the segment. Metz said the City has been granted an easement across private land behind the mall and requests for bid for the segment’s design recently went out.

The city will need to match the GOCO funds to complete the segment. Some or all of the money may come from the half-cent Open Space and Recreational sales tax approved by voters in 1999.

Metz said it is difficult to put a price tag on the Mall Corner until a final design is approved. However, when it comes to building trails, Metz said there is more work and money involved than meets the eye. Not only are there legalities involved, but construction of the trail itself is costly. “Often there is a need for railings, retaining walls, drainage, excavation and bridges,” she said. “This stretch behind the mall is very steep and will require significant retaining walls.”

Despite this, Metz is expecting construction to begin in late 2010. “The trail should be complete by 2011,” she said.

Completion of the trail’s northern end, a 2-mile extension planned from 32nd Street to the Iron Horse Inn, is a little further out. Last spring, the City purchased a $1 million right of way from the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad for the trail. The $1 million will be paid over four years, with the first installment of $250,000 already paid. Of the $1 million, $300,000 is earmarked for “clear title” use to settle ownership and encroachment disputes with private-property owners. The trail route, yet to be determined, would cross land owned by several entities, including the county and private individuals.

But before a route can be determined, the City is working with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the railroad’s right of way, in securing permission to cross the tracks. “The trail will likely need to cross the tracks at some point, and we need to get the PUC’s reaction first before we can formalize talks with property owners,” Metz said. She said negotiating with all parties could take several years. “Once we know the PUC approves, we can sit down with each property owner and discuss mitigation measures,” she said. “We’re trying to be a good neighbor. We want them to be informed and participate in the design.”

As for Schiavone and other users of the trail’s southern end, completion can’t come soon enough. “It’s really encouraging to see that the city is working on it,” said Schiavone. “The bike trail is one of the best resources in town.”

And maybe, in the not too distant future, there will be more than a few souls braving the Bike to Work Day commute. “Right now, there are three of us that commute regularly to school. On Bike to Work Day, we get about seven or eight – I think that last bit on the highway is probably the deciding factor,” he said. “But I always hope we’ll have more. It’s such a beautiful ride – or could be.” •



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