Funding promises to fill gaps in Connecticut web of trails

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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut could get its first chance to spend millions of dollars to expand recreational trails along an East Coast network stretching from Maine to the tip of Florida.

Towns, cities and nonprofit groups would compete for $10 million proposed for the next two years to design, build and maintain trails for hiking, biking and other activities along Connecticut’s portion of the 2,900-mile East Coast Greenway that extends from Calais, Maine, to Key West, Florida.

Funding is part of a bond package before the legislature and proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Legislation approved this year also broadens the use of grants and makes additional money available.

“It’s a huge deal. I think this money is going to jump start a lot of other things,” said R. Bruce Donald, head of the Connecticut Greenways Council.

Connecticut’s share of the East Coast Greenway is a 198-mile network of trails, of which 60 miles are complete as an off-road route on traffic-free trail segments. Gaps include areas in Cheshire, Farmington, Hartford, Plainville and Southington, Donald said. In eastern Connecticut, the Airline State Trail between Lebanon and Windham is being completed and officials are looking at connecting the Hop River and Airline trails, said Laurie Giannotti of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

In addition, the state Department of Transportation has completed field work, a conceptual design and invited public comment as part of a study of a trail for hiking, bicycling and other non-motor vehicles near the Merritt Parkway in southwestern Connecticut.

Many trails are known as orphans because they are not connected, Donald said. “Basically, all we talk about is connectivity,” he said.

The East Coast Greenway stretches through 15 states and Washington, D.C., winding through places as diverse as New York City’s Van Cortlandt Park, the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania and Hollywood Beach Boardwalk in Hollywood, Florida.

About 900 miles of Greenway have been reached, taking in more than 125 trail segments. At 87 miles, the Down East Sunrise Trail between Ellsworth and Ayers Junction, Maine, is the longest segment. Fifty miles are added each year, said Dennis Markatos-Soriano, executive director of the East Coast Greenway Alliance in Durham, North Carolina.

Called the “urban Appalachian trail,” the East Coast Greenway extends through the centers of towns and cities, drawing in those who walk, hike, bike, roller blade and, in some areas, ride horseback. The trails also are increasingly used by bikers commuting to work, he said.

After nearly 20 years of inactivity, interest in the Greenway has picked up because “trails proved themselves,” Donald said.

In addition to the environmental and personal health benefits of the East Coast Greenway that backers promote as a “linear park system,” the potential to drive economic activity also is a factor. Robert Klee, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, told state lawmakers in March that tax revenue is generated by trail users who visit hotels, restaurants and bars, buy groceries, takeout food and drinks and pay for other activities.

Connecticut is ahead of other states in developing its portion of the East Coast Greenway, Markatos-Soriano said. The Greenway began in 1991 when advocates in Boston, New York and Washington first suggested connecting greenways, he said.

They’ve since developed as a parkland oasis in urban settings, which is not an easy accomplishment, he said.

“You can’t handle New York without going to Central Park. This is sort of like that,” Markatos-Soriano said.
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Follow Stephen Singer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SteveSinger10

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