June 5, 2013

Firefly Trail Is Making Progress

Photo Credit: Jeff Warren

Firefly Trail could cross Trail Creek on this bridge until a high steel bridge is built, replacing the Murmur trestle in the background.

They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. But a bike trail seems so simple. How can converting an old railroad bed into a bicycle path take so long?

Athens-Clarke County voters bought into such a dream with approval of a downtown rail corridor conversion as part of a SPLOST referendum in 2004. Sales tax collections combined with a Federal Transit Administration grant would fund the first leg of the Firefly Trail. As envisioned, that bike path would follow the abandoned CSX Transportation right-of-way from Athens through Winterville to Union Point.

The SPLOST 2005 money coupled with the federal grant ($4 million together) funded right-of-way acquisition downtown between East Broad and Wilkerson streets, environmental studies and a small park off East Broad Street near Jittery Joe's Roasting Co. to serve as future trailhead.

With half that total still in the bank, the money remains a pot to draw from while paying for project design and red tape compliance on the now expanded trail project. Voter approval of the 2011 SPLOST designated more sales tax money, $7 million, to build the trail. This second influx is paired with a Federal Highway Administration grant administered by the Georgia Department of Transportation.

But such federal grants to the project add layers of red tape and regulatory hurdles to be jumped in the process of pleasing GDOT grant administrators and ultimately the feds.

SPLOST Project Manager Derek Doster lists some required compliances: “Bat studies [to ensure the mammal is not impacted by trail construction]; special flowers you have to do a study for; things on the Endangered Species Act; historical impact studies; pollution [air and noise]; there’s just a whole bunch of stuff you’ve gotta do reports on, and those reports take a whole lot of time.” 

The local SPLOST office hired a firm that generated the needed studies and documentation. “We just bundle those all up as part of the environmental documents,” Doster says.

That document packet has already met GDOT approval, he says, and now awaits a nod from the FHA. Doster expects a federal go-ahead within 60 days.

With that approval in hand, he says, the SPLOST office will upgrade preliminary design plans for yet another GDOT review. If those plans pass inspection, the SPLOST team can begin negotiating to buy needed CSX right-of-way. The purchase would be enough to get the trail over the North Oconee River and almost to the Loop. Beyond the Loop, much of the line is abandoned by CSX, and right-of-way ownership has reverted to adjacent landholders.

Short in distance, the SPLOST project is impressive in detail. A steel and concrete bridge 500 feet long will launch over Wilkerson Street and span the Oconee by multiple truss sections 50 feet above water. On the ground, the trail will be a poured concrete path 14 feet wide. A single-span bridge will carry the bikeway over Peter Street.

There was some initial hope of flying Firefly Trail over Trail Creek atop the old wooden railroad trestle at Dudley Park made famous when it was featured on the back cover of R.E.M.'s Murmur album. But upon checking the condition of the old structure, much of the wood was found to be rotten, making its use impossible, Doster says.

Instead, another high bridge as long as the Oconee span is proposed to sail the bike path over the valley of Trail Creek at original railroad grade level. The second long bridge is optional, Doster says. If it's built, it would mimic the profile of the old bridge, he says. 

The portion of wooden railroad trestle still standing in Dudley Park—CSX knocked down part of it in 2002 before ACC stepped in to save the rest—would have to come down to make way for the second long bikeway bridge, Doster says. A spur trail from the Dudley Park end of the Oconee River bike bridge could connect the Firefly Trail to the North Oconee River Greenway inside Dudley Park and allow the Firefly to cross Trail Creek on an already existing steel bike bridge, but it wouldn't be at grade.

Money saved avoiding construction of the second long span could be used to buy more railroad, Doster notes. The mayor and commission will pick the priority (span or more right-of-way) when they cross that bridge, so to speak.

“If the priority is to ensure that the land is there, you go buy the property,” Doster says. “You get that connectivity, that corridor, in place. But the priority could be to build that trestle. It’s a future decision by the mayor and commission.”

The nonprofit Firefly Trail Inc. recently gained 501(c)3 status in its effort to acquire more right-of-way to add to the SPLOST-built trail section. Cash donations to the organization are tax deductible. Donations of right-of-way or easements for trail passage are also deductible, explains Firefly Trail Inc. spokesman Mark Ralston. Plans are to eventually buy some sections of right-of-way, where needed, once cash donations begin to accumulate, Ralston says.

“Right now, the main thing we’re using funds on is awareness to promote the trail and the idea of the trail,” he says.

Talk of a rails-to-trails conversion to Union Point generated negative feedback from some Oglethorpe County residents, Ralston says.

“There are some people in the area and along the way who do not want it in their yard. But it’s like that with any trail,” he says. Even the Appalachian Trail drew some initial opposition. “Often it is because it’s new or unknown.” Ralston believes that, once some trail sections open and are observable in use, much opposition will fall away.

“It’s a really exciting project,” says Doster, showing drawn plans for bridges on the SPLOST-funded downtown section. He predicts a construction start in 2014. “When it’s done, hopefully everybody will enjoy it,” he says, “And that’s the ultimate goal.”