“It’s a small part of the puzzle for making Anniston ‘Bike City, Alabama,’” Mayor Vaughn Stewart said Tuesday of what will likely be a multi-year plan to convert abandoned rail lines into a recreational bike trail that runs into the city’s downtown.
Consultants completed a technical feasibility study last month that maps a potential route for the new trail. The report, completed by 4Site Inc. and J.R. Wilburn Associates, outlines the seven-mile extension from Mike Tucker Park through Anniston to the multi-modal train depot downtown, with trailheads at each location. The new trail would connect to the existing 33 miles of the Chief Ladiga Trail to the Georgia state line, where it continues as the 62-mile Silver Comet Trail.
The plan lists optional connections and extensions into other areas of the city, including a share-the-lane network through McClellan roads, a potential crossing of Alabama 21 into Lagarde Park, bike routes through the city’s downtown streets with connection to Coldwater Mountain bike trails, and the possibility of developing an second abandoned rail line in the western side of the city.
City officials hope to acquire the second rail line directly from the railroad during the abandonment process, said City Manager Don Hoyt. Hoyt said the city has notified the federal Surface Transportation Board of its interest in acquiring the property.
The second rail line, which begins at a potential trailhead at the Blue Mountain Train Depot at Blue Mountain Avenue, can serve residents on the western side of the city and connect to the Ladiga Trail at Norwood Park. From that connection, the trail can be rerouted around the industrial property of M&H Valve and back onto the main trail line at 23rd Street.
This preliminary plan estimates the cost at $1.6 million, a figure Hoyt said was very rough and could change based on how the city decides to move forward with improvements and amenities along the trail.
City Planner Toby Bennington said the plan to extend the trail creates an incredible dynamic, completing a connection from Anniston to the Atlanta area that is supported by Amtrak for enterprising cyclists who want to make a one-way ride of its entire length.
“It connects neighborhoods, the multi-modal center, West Anniston, north Anniston,” he said, noting the potential to connect the trail to a future outdoor shopping center the city hopes to have developed at the site of the Anniston Middle School. Bennington said he thinks the trail extension will bring people to the city’s downtown, where the cyclists will ride right by a new brewpub opening at 12th Street.
“It’s connecting people to places,” he said, “affording people the opportunity to get around by bicycling means.”
Mindy Poe, a Jacksonville resident who runs the website chiefladigatrail.com, said she gets inquiries from cyclists riding trails all over the country, “and riding the Chief Ladiga Trail is on their bucket list.”
Poe said extending the trail — which along with the Silver Comet, is already the longest continuous paved trail in the country — into the city’s downtown is a tremendous opportunity.
She said the Model City will become one of two destination points on this ultimate trail ride. “At the end of that point, they’ll be staring at Coldwater Mountain,” she said. “It’s like the perfect storm for economic explosion and development downtown.”
But before the city can put any of the plans into action, it must actually acquire the property the old rail line runs along. When the rail line was previously abandoned, the city failed to secure the property from the railroad, and ownership of the right-of-way reverted to adjacent property owners.
Local attorney Ed Isom has been helping the city research the seven-mile stretch of property. He said he does not yet have a count of the property owners along the trail, but he said they number in the hundreds. Isom said he expects to have the property study wrapped up by the end of the month and will compile a list of the owners for the city.
To keep the project on track, the city has pulled together about a dozen stakeholders into a Chief Ladiga Trail Task Force.
Stewart said at the group's meeting Tuesday he felt the purpose of the task force was to advise the City Council, exploring the city’s options thoroughly, but more importantly to keep the project moving.
“Otherwise we’ll be here 10 years from now still discussing this,” he said. “We need to get a game plan and stick to it.”
The city’s next order of business is to put together a rough timeline for the project and begin approaching property owners as soon as Isom’s research is complete. Other planning for the project, Bennington said, can run concurrently with the acquisition of property.
Jack Plunk, principal planner at the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission who also heads the Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the MPO has some flexible funds to help Anniston with the costs of extending the trail.
“It will be a long-term project,” Plunk said. “It won’t happen this year; it may not happen in a couple years, but we’ll be here until it does happen if the city wants to follow through and make that happen.”
Staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.