Johnson County commissioners adopted in September a master plan for a county-wide trail system. Elizabeth Depompei, Indianapolis Star
When Carmen Parker was training for a marathon, she looked for a paved, designated running path near her Whiteland home to run a 20 miler. But it didn’t exist.
Instead, she ran along country roads to Greenwood and back. Scenic, but not necessarily safe.
What started as long-distance training has led Parker to take part in a different kind of marathon: adding 165 miles of walking and biking trails throughout Johnson County. Currently, the county has between 50 and 60 miles of trails.
“I’m committed to this,” Parker said of making the master plan a reality.
She’s not the only one. After years of meetings with collaborators and applications for funding, Johnson County now has a trails master plan. Last month, county commissioners formally adopted the 94-page vision of a county-wide trails system. With the master plan in place, municipalities can apply for grants to fund the expensive undertaking of expanding trails.
It’s a step that has united like minds and that will open doors for funding, but there’s much work to be done.
Why trails matter
The trails vision plan includes a survey of almost 400 people. Almost 90 percent agreed that an expanded trail system is important to their quality of life. Over 93 percent agreed it was important to the community.
For runners and cyclists, the benefits are obvious. More trails mean more safe places to run, walk and bike. And an expanded trail system might encourage the less active to get out and exercise.
According to United Health Foundation’s 2018 annual health rankings report, 33.6 percent of adults in Indiana are considered obese. Almost 30 percent of adults in the state reported doing no physical activity outside of their jobs in the previous 30 days.
For people who live in smaller towns like Trafalgar and Whiteland, where there are few trails, access can be a barrier to exercise.
“If there are places where we can provide a safe way for folks to exercise or walk as a family, that was our other kind of goal,” said Parker, who leads the Johnson County Trails group.
The main goal, though, is more practical-minded. For people who don’t have or want cars, trails are a way to get from point A to point B. In a survey of nearly 400 Johnson County residents, almost 30 percent said they use a combination of biking, walking, transit and driving for transportation. More than 75 percent said they’d like to bike more, and over 86 percent want to walk more.
Dana Monson is the director of Johnson County Development Corporation and helps lead Aspire Johnson County, an economic and community development engine. Monson said that anecdotally, she was surprised to learn how many people in the county don’t use cars and depend on walking or biking.
“People are using these (trails) for transportation to get to jobs, to get to schools, to get places,” she said.
That’s easier to do within cites like Greenwood and Franklin, which account for most of the county’s trails. But if someone needs to get from Whiteland to Greenwood by foot or bike, there aren’t designated paths.
Monson says the topic comes up a lot with businesses eyeing Johnson County. Those businesses need a workforce, and that workforce needs transportation.
“When I sit down and talk with a company and I say, what’s an issue that you have with workforce development, they talk about transportation,” she said. “They’re talking about multi-modal transportation. They’re talking about trails as part of that.”
Whether it’s transportation, recreation or health, Monson said trails make a community better and more appealing for economic development. And to Monson and Parker, the community isn’t a single town or city — it’s the entire county.
What’s in the plan
The map says it all. Yellow lines disperse in all directions in Greenwood and Franklin, indicating existing trails. More yellow lines run in an area west of Greenwood and north of Bargersville.
The missing pieces between Greenwood, Whiteland, Franklin, Bargersville, Trafalgar, Nineveh and Edinburgh are easy to see. Bold, green lines show the trails needed to connect those communities. They make up for the majority of the plan and would be new, paved trails. Other, dotted lines show where trails could be worked into existing roadways.
The $40,000 master plan was funded through the Opus Foundation, a foundation of Opus Group developers.
The path ahead
If Parker could snap her fingers and have 165 miles of new trail by tomorrow, she would. But she knows this is a long-term commitment, and a financial one. Each new mile of paved trail will cost around $800,000, she said.
Park wants those dollars to come from grants and fundraisers. Many grants, she said, require a 20 percent match from the municipality. For example, a recent Indiana’s Next Level Trails initiative worked with the town of Speedway to expand the B&O Trail. The state awarded that project nearly $4.9 million for 2.6 miles of trail and a pedestrian bridge. A 20 percent match on that project works out to almost $980,000 for the town of Speedway.
But Parker doesn’t plan to wait around for the big bucks to get to work. She wants to tackle the “low-hanging fruit” first. That could include adding trails to existing roadways, something Parker said could just be “a matter of paint and some signage.”
David Hittle, the county’s planning and zoning director who has represented the county throughout the master plan processing, said a big opportunity lies in roads that have yet to be built.
Large sections of Smith Valley and Morgantown roads will be “completely overhauled” in the next few years. It’s a lot less costly to include trails as a road is being built than to go back and do it later, Hittle said.
“So this (master) plan is going to have a big impact on how those roads are rebuilt,” he said.
Monson said Aspire and Johnson County Trails will meet with town and city leaders again, now that the plan has been formally adopted. Both agencies will offer municipalities as much help as they can, including researching grants and private partnerships for funding.
Parker said she hopes Johnson County Trails can soon get a paid staff member to lead the group into the next phase. In the meantime, she wants to continue what’s become a grassroots movement by turning to the community for help. She envisions events like a run/walk 5K or a biking excursion to a local brewery to raise money.
Whatever it takes, Parker and the people she’s brought along in her marathon mission, are committed to the long haul.
“The only thing I want to get out of it is I want to make the community better than when I got here.”
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