About 30 East Central neighbors showed up for a presentation about the Ben Burr Trail project Tuesday evening at East Central Community Center.
When city senior design engineer Dan Buller asked who among them had concerns about the outlined project, 28 hands shot into the air.
“OK, that’s why I’m here,” Buller said. “This project is in its early design phase – it’s not a done deal.”
The East Central Neighborhood Council has pushed to connect the Ben Burr Trail to the Centennial Trail near the Riverpoint Campus for at least the past 20 years. A plan for that connection is outlined in East Central’s Neighborhood Plan, finalized in 2006.
Based on the plan, the city applied for federal grants to pay for the project, and received close to $1.7 million, according to the project outline included in the six-year street plan.
The grant funds are transportation funds, meaning they come with pavement, as Buller put it.
That means the unpaved part of the Ben Burr Trail – running roughly from Fiske Street and Hills Court to Liberty Park – would have to be paved, expanded and upgraded to meet federal standards in order for the project to retain the federal funding.
Buller explained that means putting in a 12-foot-wide paved lane, with 2 feet of shoulder on both sides.
“We have to pave a minimum of 12 feet or we will lose the federal money for the whole project,” Buller said.
But most of the East Central neighbors at the meeting don’t see pavement as an upgrade. “You are taking the nature trail that we have and turning it into a road,” said Sam Mace, who lives near Underhill Park and frequents the trail.
In some places the gravel trail is no more than 8 or 9 feet wide, bordered by a steep drop to the north, and tall cliffs to the south.
Expanding it would lead to rock blasting in some places and some rerouting of the trail to make it less steep.
Jim Hanley, who serves on the neighborhood council, said that it wasn’t worth it relying on federal funding if that meant the neighborhood lost its say in the project.
“It sounds great that we can get all that money, but this is not the trail we were planning to get,” Hanley said.
Another longtime East Central neighborhood activist, Jerry Numbers, said he and other people at the meeting were surprised that the city was this far in planning for the Ben Burr Trail.
“Last we heard was that a smaller grant was being returned because the city hadn’t done anything with the money,” Numbers said. “And suddenly we find out they are this far.”
Jason Beasley, who lives on Hills Court at the east end of the trail, pointed out the irony in connecting a paved bike trail to an unpaved street.
“Hills Court is a city street and it’s not paved – you should pave that first before you start connecting it to a paved trail,” Beasley said.
Buller, who thought he was bringing good news to the neighborhood, was a bit surprised by the negative reaction.
Toward the end of the meeting, neighbors showed support for focusing the federal funds on the part of the trail north of Liberty Park and on the connection to the Centennial Trail – and leaving the unpaved part as it is. That would probably mean reapplying for the federal grants, Buller said, adding he would look into that.
He promised to return with an update at an upcoming East Central Neighborhood Council meeting, either Nov. 19 or Dec. 17.