Feature Article - April 2018
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Making Connections, Spurring Development

The Latest in Trail & Greenway Planning, Maintenance & Programming

By Chris Gelbach

Maintenance Considerations

One of the biggest challenges when launching a new trail project with an eye toward long-term success is securing sufficient funding for ongoing maintenance. "The hard truth is that the federal and most of the state programs that facilitate trail development in this country do not allow maintenance. Maintenance is not funded anywhere nearly as robustly as construction" Oberg said. "The best thing trail developers can do is understand the full lifetime costs of these projects and try to identify local opportunities to deal with the maintenance liability of trail development."

Houston Parks Board established an extensive maintenance and strategic plan before its Bayou Greenways 2020 project started. As a nonprofit organization maintaining public lands under an agreement with the City of Houston, the board also has a unique funding model, receiving grants from the city to fund maintenance from the incremental increases in property taxes generated from development near the greenways.

"In a city like Houston that doesn't have zoning, the development world kind of dictates who and what we will become," Rondot said. "Along these bayou greenways where we have new parks and new trails, you can definitely tell that the development world is responding to that. We are seeing new residential development, new commercial development. Ultimately, it's very easy for us to see how we're having an economic impact, which then turns around and justifies the funding model that is covering this whole program."

In addition to considering funding options for maintenance from the outset, it's also imperative to design the trail and its amenities to facilitate the task, including planning frequent access points for heavy maintenance equipment.

"It's really important to have access points along the way so that the heavy equipment is not on the greenway. "It's a deterrent in terms of using the trail if you have to get around a maintenance truck all the time," Poovey said. "It's better to plan how the maintenance is going to happen in the planning and design phase so that you're thinking through that—instead of figuring out how to take out the trash and how they're going to clean up the trail later."

On her projects, Poovey's team also meets with maintenance staff as they're going through a design to think about all the items that will be needed to make maintenance as easy as possible, whether that includes availability of potable water to hose off trails or stations with shovels.

The maintenance plan should also identify and prioritize high-traffic commuter trails as the first that need to be cleared in case of flooding or snow. "If your trail is a transportation conduit, you need to keep that sucker open," Oberg said. "If you're in a winter climate, that means snow removal. And that's a big deal."

The considerations for snow include making sure that you have the right equipment, creating a snowplow regimen, and considering which trails you will regularly clear. In areas that get enough snow and have consistent winter, Oberg recommends considering recreational trails that don't get plowed as an opportunity to promote winter activities such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

"Don't automatically assume that plowing has to be done," Oberg said. "In some places, it might make more sense to leave it and start promoting your winter sports programs."

In Dallas, decisions regarding maintenance are informed by Dallas Park and Recreation's use of electronic people counters that can differentiate between bikers and walkers and can tell which way they are going. The collected data helps the department better deploy resources to highly-used trails that might need more frequent mowing or litter pickup, and to collaborate more effectively with the Dallas Police Department on more effective deployment of trail patrols.

"For us, our value in just having the data is that it's incredible to really be able to articulate what our trail usage is around Dallas," said Dallas Park and Recreation Department Director Willis Winters. "It helps us request continued investment in building our trail system, and to justify making connections where we might have missing links."

Trail Surface and Width

Maintenance considerations also come into play when considering which surface to go with, the most common options being crushed limestone, asphalt and concrete. "The biggest indicator of maintenance needs will be surface type," Oberg said. "Limestone trails are going to be much cheaper to put down, but they're going to take constant maintenance."

According to Oberg, that maintenance can be done by low-skilled workers and even volunteer youth crews. For communities with more access to manpower than hard cash, limestone might be a consideration. But if you don't have access to a lot of labor, asphalt and concrete require far less regular maintenance.

In Houston, the primary trail surface used for decades was asphalt. But Rondot noted that given the city's humid climate, clay soils and flooding issues, asphalt trails only had a life cycle of about eight years. And since many trails experience frequent flooding and need silt removal after storms, using loose materials as a trail surface is not a possibility. As Houston builds out a vast network of bayou greenways, Houston Parks Board settled on concrete as its default surface material.

"The materials you use have to have the longest life cycle," Rondot said. "It makes no sense to put things out there that, before we completely build out the system, we're already going back to repair or replace things that we just put in … Concrete trails in this climate will last 30 years."

The city has set an initial standard of 10-foot-wide concrete for new trails. While Rondot finds that a bit narrow in a few trail sections, the Houston Parks Board is limited in how wide they can go given that many of the trails are in Harris County Flood Control District land.