Extending the Mary Black Rail Trail: Eight years in the making, work could finally begin soon – Spartanburg Herald Journal

Extending the Mary Black Rail Trail: Eight years in the making, work could finally begin soon  Spartanburg Herald Journal

How long does it take to go a little more than half a mile?

In a car, less than a minute. On a bicycle, maybe five to ten minutes. For the city of Spartanburg and its team of engineers: it’s taken eight years.

Efforts to extend the popular Mary Black Foundation Rail Trail .67 miles along Kennedy Street and Converse Street to downtown’s Barnet Park began in 2012. And while the city has acquired several slivers of land along the planned route, and has $1.2 million in funding ready to allocate, construction has yet to begin. 

“This has been a long and drawn out process,” city engineer Tim Carter told the council in an update Monday. “But I think we are getting close.” 

He expects the city to be ready to hire a contractor to begin the work in the coming months.

City officials and community leaders will be glad when this nearly decade-long planning marathon finally crosses the finish line. The now 2-mile path — which runs between Henry and Union Streets — is consistently the most-utilized trail in the city for cyclists and runners, used more than 162,000 times in 2019.

Read also:Cottonwood Trail boardwalk renovations complete, 30th anniversary fundraising continues

An extension could result in even more usage, while connecting pedestrians from nearby neighborhoods to their favorite downtown locales with safety features that are not currently found anywhere in South Carolina, officials say. Yet nobody anticipated it would take as long as it has.

“This project has been one of the more complicated projects and has taken far longer than we expected,” said Laura Ringo, executive director of the nonprofit Partners for Active Living. 

‘Quite the journey’

City officials give several reasons for the slow pace. Among them: the number of funding partners involved; the number of steps required.

Because the State Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration have committed dollars, the project required detailed collaboration and meetings between the three partners to iron out the details.

Another reason for the slog: the project comes with unique features. 

Several of the concepts in the original proposal had never been done before in South Carolina, said Blake Loudermilk, an engineer with Toole Design, a national bicycle and transportation design company with an office in Spartanburg.

The company has helped the city with the Rail Trail project from the onset. 

“We wanted to experiment with a couple of things,” Loudermilk said. “That whole experimentation process, that was about a year. We just had a lot of conversations (with all of the partners) to get everyone on the same page.”

In the end, some of their ideas were given the green light. Others, tossed out.

Spartanburg’s extended Rail Trail — with a section acting as a bicycle lane along Union, Kennedy and Converse Streets — will not feature traffic signals designed for cyclists, as originally proposed. 

And unlike what can be found in cities like Atlanta, Seattle, Denver, and Boston, there will be no bike boxes, an intersection safety feature intended to prevent bicycle/car collisions.

“These (bike boxes) are becoming a trend across the nation,” Loudermilk said. “But it hasn’t really resonated with southern DOTs.” 

When complete, the longer version of the Rail Trail will include one unusual feature that can’t be found anywhere else in the Palmetto state. As the trail moves alongside Converse Street,  a raised curb will form a buffer between automobiles and bicycles.

“The cars can’t drive over those curbs,” Loudermilk said. “When you’re on the bicycle, you’ll feel a lot safer because you’re so far removed from the traffic.”

But even if the city didn’t dedicate time to trying new ways to improve pedestrian safety, the process likely still would have crawled.

City manager Chris Story said the planning process has been slowed by the step-by-step rules DOT established for the city to follow in a specific order.

“It was a very step-by-step approach to the planning, and the design, and the traffic analysis, and the signal authorizations. Each various aspect of the project had to occur one at a time to meet the DOT funding requirements. 

“It’s been quite the journey,” he added.

The state’s DOT spokesperson Pete Poore declined to comment on the Rail Trail extension project. 

Nearing the end

The city has already acquired several pieces of land to make room for the new trail, including property owned by First Baptist Church Spartanburg and the Episcopal Church of the Advent. In total, the city has paid less than $50,000 on strips of property without opposition.

In a process that’s been choked by its share of complications, that part has been “relatively easy,” Story said, adding, “property owners have been supportive of the project.”

The city has one more patch of property to acquire before they can seek a final sign-off from DOT and bring in a contractor to begin construction, Story added.

For this long, eight-year journey, city officials can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. 

“We are excited about this,” Story said. “The Rail Trail has been so tremendously well used. It’s by far our most heavily used recreational asset, people are literally voting with their feet that this is one of the most important amenities that they have.”