Authored by Patrick Starr, originally published on the Pennsylvania Environmental Council Blog 

Building trails isn’t as simple as some people think!  

That’s especially true when the design goal is to welcome users of limited abilities, including children, seniors, and those who are otherly-abled. Building a multi-purpose trail that meets Americans for Disability Act (ADA) standards for accessibility and is safe, user-friendly and serves the transportation needs of its users a tall order. And for our Circuit Trails network in the Greater Philadelphia and southern New Jersey region, you can multiply that by 850 miles! Then you can multiply it some more when you factor in creating” a network in an urban area with more than 5 million people and lots of creeks and rivers, street and highway crossings, and more! 

Photo of the Delaware River Trail by Daniel Paschall

Welcome to Pennsylvania Environmental Council’s world as we lead and advocate for the development of the Circuit Trails! The good news is that more than 350 miles are built and another 200 miles are being planned, designed or under construction. We expect at least 10 miles to open in 2021! 

Fortunately, the Regional Trails Program, funded by the William Penn Foundation (WPF), is a huge boost for our effort. As part of a strategic investment in trails, WPF parked $22 million over the past decade at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, a bi-state agency created back in the 1960’s to coordinate transportation infrastructure planning for greater Philadelphia. These funds are dedicated to building and connecting the Circuit Trails network. 

Recently, the final round of grants was made–more than $2.6 million for projects ranging from feasibility studies to engineering and design (especially hard to find funding), and construction. Fourteen projects were funded: 10 in Pennsylvania and four in New Jersey.  

With so many great trail projects, it was no surprise that demand for the funds was intense and competitive.  This round there were more than 40 applications submitted.  Due to my role as the Pennsylvania Vice Chair of the Circuit Trails Coalition, I was invited to serve as one of the reviewers of the 31 projects submitted by local governments and nonprofit project sponsors.   

In Pennsylvania, the ranking isn’t easy, but the discussion—which includes representatives from the counties, core cities, state natural resource agencies, as well as leaders of the Circuit Trails Coalition—is good-natured, analytical and intense. We want projects to be successful and impactful. We consider many factors: Will the project make an important connection in the growing network? does it serve communities that have limited access and struggle with poverty and systemic racism? does the project sponsor have the capacity to complete the project and to be successful if provided funding? And beyond. 

Photo by Thom Carroll

The most recent round of projects funded in Pennsylvania reflect the diversity of trails in our region. From Creekside wooded riparian corridors to rail trails and side paths along connecting roadways that need to be added into already developed neighborhoods. 

I love them all—but to give you an inside look at some of the projects selected, here are just a handful from this round:  

  • An extension of the Darby Creek Trail in densely populated Haverford Township will connect several local trails and provide access to the creek, a previously hard-to-get-to natural resource! 
  • Improvements to West 2ndStreet in the City of Chester that is one side of a recreational trail “loop” that will serve city residents and is part of the East Coast Greenway. City residents will be better connected to the Delaware Riverfront and through-cyclists will be able to choose a “scenic” riverside path or follow 2nd Street (aka the Industrial Heritage Highway, PA 291).  
  • Final engineering and design for a very complicated “gap filler” that will thread the Schuylkill River Trail (SRT) across the Wissahickon Creek, connect to the famous Forbidden Drive, and provide safe passage for those wishing to continue along the SRT to Manayunk and beyond. This is an especially critical safety connection! 
  • Preliminary design for the Bristol Greenway through Croydon that will weave the East Coast Greenway through industry, old woods and older residential communities, as well as provide a safe off-road trail for both local residents and through users. 

My colleagues also worked hard to select significant and impactful projects in New Jersey from among the nine applications from that state. The Circuit Trails Coalition's New Jersey Co-Chair Sonia Szszensa participated in these discussions. Some highlights from the Garden State include: 

  • Design for the Camden County Link Bike/Ped Bridge over NJ 130, which will serve as a safe crossing over the state's most dangerous road. 
  • Design for the Laurel Run Segment of the Rancocas Creek Greenway, which will build momentum for this trail east of NJ 130. 
  • Construction of the Cramer Hill Waterfront Park Connector, a short but vital connection between the Cramer Hill neighborhood and the soon-to-be-opened 62-acre Cramer Hill Waterfront Park. 

A lot will be happening over the next few years on the Circuit Trails network! After the huge spike in use during the COVID-19 pandemic, interest in trails is high and it’s exciting to see Pennsylvanians and New Jerseyans clamoring for more. These investments will improve safety, connectivity, and, I hope, will welcome many more users to the active recreation and beautiful natural resources accessible on the Circuit Trails.  

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