City hopes new trail will create connections for east Columbia

AP

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As often as she can, Sutu Forte likes to venture out into the open space along Hinkson Creek just west of Old 63 and north of Stadium Boulevard to enjoy the forest, wildlife, grass paths and bluffs.

"I've had a relationship with the area since 1972," Forte, who lives on nearby Bluffdale Drive, said. "I've learned how important the area is on an environmental and emotional level."

Forte, who is also president of It's Our Wild Nature, worries that a city proposal to build trails through the property will spoil the land, where college students like to picnic, string a hammock, or launch themselves into the creek from a rope swing that hangs over the water. The trails would connect Shepard Boulevard and other east-Columbia neighborhoods to campus.

Forte and her group want to preserve the 35-acr property, which is owned by the Klifton R. Altis Trust as a wildlife sanctuary. The city, however, sees the area as crucial to connecting east Columbia to campus and downtown. Plans for a trail have been in the works for over 10 years.

Two trails have been proposed, one by the Public Works Department and the other by the Parks and Recreation Department. The trails would not only connect the east Columbia neighborhoods with the city center, but would also fill a gap in a 30-mile loop of trails around Columbia that the city is working to complete.

One motivation for the trail is to get people out of their cars and either walking or biking. City officials say there are no trail options for people living in the area. And the Go COMO bus route serving Old 63 between Stadium Boulevard and Broadway was eliminated last year.

The city hired TranSystem, an engineering and architectural planning company, in 2015 to determine the best trail routes. It produced four options for the City Council to consider. On Monday night, an ordinance that would approve moving forward on options 1 and 3 is up for a council vote.

Alignment 1 would begin north of Hinkson Creek and connect the cul-de-sac of Bluffdale Drive to Rollins Road. It would cost about $1.6 million and would be funded through the city's Non-motorized Transportation Pilot Program.

Alignment 3 would run along Hinkson Creek, crossing it twice. The trail would end west of Old 63 and underneath Stadium Boulevard. The cost for this option is $1.2 million, with $800,000 coming from the park sales tax. The city hopes to win grants to cover the rest of the cost.

TranSystem originally recommended Alignment 1, saying it would best balance environmental impacts, federal constraints and would have reasonable potential to get people out of cars. City staff, however, is proposing both alignments.

The cost estimates don't include the price of easements, which the council will also be asked to approve on Monday.

Mike Snyder, park planning and development superintendent, said the trail would be the next step in creating the 30-mile loop around Columbia. The loop is 50 percent complete, and plans are in the works to create another trail near Perche Creek in west Columbia within the next couple of years.

"The biggest users of the (Shepard-to-Rollins) trail will be students that live in the area, as it gives them a direct route to East Campus," Snyder said.

Snyder also feels that there will be a large number of people using the trail for leisure, for fitness or to connect to Stephens Lake Park or the Grindstone Nature Area.

Allison Anderson, the engineering supervisor for the project, hopes construction can begin by fall. She believes that once the council gives the go-ahead on acquiring easements, a more detailed design phase can begin and lead to opening bids for the project.

Forte and other residents say the trail would disrupt the environment because it will cross through the Altis property. Forte also feels the trail is simply unnecessary.

"The trail already exists," she said, referring to a series of pedways and bike lanes the city has created. "There is connectivity from Stephens Lake Park to Old 63, south to Stadium Boulevard, and then north on Ashland Road. We were told five years ago that would be the necessary connectivity."

Forte said she has created a video showing how one can go from Stephens Lake Park to Stadium Boulevard and will show it to council Monday.

Instead of creating a trail, It's Our Wild Nature wants to turn the Altis property into an urban wilderness sanctuary. The group is looking into foundations that help create and fund such efforts. The Trust for Public Land is the most notable option that they have, and would help to give legal security over the area.

Forte said the land could be used to help children get out and experience nature.

"We want to create a nature school through volunteerism, to bring children here on various days of the week and have an educated naturalist guide to explain to them what's going on in this natural area," she said.

Forte also feels other areas of Columbia are missing out while the city gives the Shepard-to-Rollins trail priority.

"There are so many other areas in Columbia that are in desperate need of bike trails, sidewalk repair and park construction," Forte said.

Reba Cassin, who also lives in the neighborhood where the entrance of the trail would be, opposes the project as well.

"I'm not too enthusiastic about that trail," she said. "I haven't heard anybody in favor of it. Most people want to preserve the quietness of our neighborhood, and that's a very valuable thing to us here."

The Pednet Coalition, a nonprofit organization that promotes alternative and active transportation, is lobbying for the trail to be built.

Pednet Assistant Director Lawrence Simonson said areas east of Old 63 lack a safe and effective way to get around actively.

"There is no comparison between riding down Old 63 and using the MKT Trail, especially when you are riding down Stadium Boulevard," Simonson said. "I can't see anyone letting their kid ride down Stadium when compared to an MKT Trail."

Members of It’s Our Wild Nature have spoken at previous council meetings about creating a better and safer connection along Stadium Boulevard.

Simonson said trails can benefit the environment around them because users gain a sense of ownership and sometimes work to protect the trails' surroundings.

A large scale construction project like the Shepard-to-Rollins trail, however, would require clearing out a wide swath of open space. Sixth Ward Councilwoman Betsy Peters said the city would reduce the impact as much as possible.

“If Parks and Rec. works on the trail, then they’ll do a good job,” she said. “They have tried to do the best job that they can and be mindful of the trees that are already there.”

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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