Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Chance To Shape The Future

I have said it for years: Washington County is a great place to be a cyclist. Of course, it could be even better. Next week, you and I will have a special opportunity to advocate the changes we would like to see:

It’s time to follow up on a survey conducted last year by the Planning & Parks Department. Here are some of the most interesting findings from that survey, reprinted word-for-word as they appear at the county’s website:
  • The five most frequently visited facilities in the County Park system: 1) Eisenbahn State Trail; 2) Ridge Run; 3) Glacier Hills; 4) Sandy Knoll; 5) Ackerman’s Grove.
  • The five most popular activities when visiting the County Park System: 1) Walking/running/jogging; 2) Hiking; 3) Biking; 4) Relaxation/stress relief; 5) Nature viewing/study.
  • The five most requested additional recreational activities/amenities: 1) Additional bike trails, 2) Lookout towers; 3) Trail signage displaying slopes, distances and trail surfacing; 4) Additional benches along trails; 5) Dog parks.
  • Nearly three quarters (460, 74%) of respondents were in favor of the County investing in additional countywide trails similar to the Eisenbahn State Trail.
  • Of the 459 responses, 94% (429) indicated that new trails should connect cities and villages throughout the County.
  • Of the 460 responses, 95% (438) indicated that new trails should connect major existing parks and trails throughout the County.
  • Of the 460 responses, 89% (408) indicated that new trails should connect to existing trails in adjacent counties.
  • When asked to provide comments regarding the County Park system the most frequent response indicated appreciation for parks and/or trails in general, the County Park System, or various aspects of the system. The second most frequent response was support for the enhancement of the trail system in Washington County. Respondents expressed support for expansion, connection, and improved access to existing trails; construction of new trails; more trails similar to the Eisenbahn State Trail; extension of the paved portion of the Eisenbahn State Trail; additional amenities along trails such as additional signage, waste collection receptacles, and benches; more off-road/unpaved hiking and biking trails; and various improvements to existing hiking and biking trails.
So, people really like the Eisenbahn and they want new connections between communities, parks and existing trails. Sounds good to me, but it’s important to remember that 92% of survey respondents were people who “expressed that parks and trails were either somewhat or very important to their quality of life in Washington County.” In the general population you should expect less support … much less once you present taxpayers with the construction estimates. This is a good time to remember your history: the Eisenbahn was an abandoned railroad corridor acquired by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, given to the counties of Washington and Fond du Lac to develop, and then partially paved with asphalt by the City of West Bend. There’s no harm in dreaming big, but understand that there is only so much Planning & Parks can do. Money is tight, nearly all land in Washington County is in private hands, and there will be opposition to almost any proposal.

I’m going to make a less ambitious but more achievable suggestion: allow bicycles on county park trails! This is just an administrative change. It can be done right away and free of charge. There’s potential for mountain biking at places like Ridge Run and Glacier Hills, and for winter fatbike riding at Sandy Knoll and Homestead Hollow. Several parks have great potential as cyclocross venues.

Can the county work with individual landowners and private groups like the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust to acquire easements for new trail connections? Example: Sandy Knoll and Lizard Mound are just a half mile apart, connected by a farmer's tractor path. A couple of signs and modest improvements to the path would create a convenient link.

Can the county begin a dialogue with the DNR to identify utility corridors, waterways, and abandoned railroad lines that could be used for new trail development? If someday there’s a chance to extend the Eisenbahn south to Jackson and beyond, let’s do it!

For what it’s worth, there aren’t that many miles of railroad in the county, and most of what remains in service has a north-south orientation. There’s already a strong north-south bias in our existing trail network. If you want an east-west bike trail someday—and OK, this more than qualifies as dreaming big—look to the power line corridors. As ambitious as this may appear, it would be easier to expand existing easements than to negotiate new ones with dozens of private landowners along some other route. (You need only look at the gaps in the Ice Age Trail to see how long and difficult the latter can be.) Could the county benefit from something like this?

That’s a potential power line trail across almost the entire county, starting in a residential neighborhood on the northwest side of Hartford and ending at the Ozaukee County line. Establish short bike lanes or bike routes to connect the trail to Slinger, West Bend and Jackson and you have tied together most of the county’s population centers. If you can get Ozaukee to buy into the program, someday the trail could intersect with the Interurban just west of Port Washington. It’s a seven-figure project—even if the trail were gravel, there would still be creeks and highways over which bridges would be required—but it satisfies many of the things that people say they want.

I will welcome any new infrastructure that eventually comes out of next week’s meeting, but I don’t have unrealistic expectations. I will be happy if all I get is access to existing trails that currently are closed to me.

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