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Rail access vital to developing trail to Freeport

The nonprofit Friends of the Riverfront will discuss more details of its plan to develop a 29-mile recreational trail from Pittsburgh to Freeport along the Allegheny River tomorrow in Harmar.

The proposed extension of the Three River Heritage trail will travel through 17 communities along the river.

When completed, it would connect to the existing 22 miles of trails along the shoreline of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers on one end, and the Butler-Freeport Community Trail on the other.

The walking and biking trail would serve as another link in the proposed Pittsburgh-to-Erie trail.

Friends of the Riverfront sponsored a study of the proposed trail with Allegheny County, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and the Allegheny River Towns Enterprise Zone.

Community leaders and municipal officials in the towns where the trail would pass are excited about the prospect but are curious as to how planners will thread the trail around active rail lines, private property and industrial sites.

For towns such as Natrona, where residents are trying to rebuild and attract visitors, the trail could be an economic plus.

“With all the many hikers and cyclists, I envision future development such as restaurants and specialty shops catering to those visitors,” said Bill Godfrey, president of the civic redevelopment group Natrona Comes Together. “The trail would highlight many new sites in the town like our new playground and coming art sculptures all showcasing our rich industrial history.”

Cheswick Councilwoman Gayle Godfrey (not a direct relation of Bill Godfrey), said, “It would be wonderful to have the trail come and to be able to bicycle into downtown Pittsburgh. That would be fantastic,” she said, adding, “But I don’t think it’s going to happen in my lifetime.”

Tom Baxter, executive director of the Friends of the Riverfront, has said it will be a multi-year process to develop the trail.

The challenge in laying a continuous trail in the 17 communities along the river is that the river is rimmed by private property, industrial sites and an active mainline of Norfolk Southern the entire length of the proposed trail.

For example, recommendations from the trail study propose either using railroad access roads or a share-the-road arrangement.

Gayle Godfrey, along with other public officials, said she is concerned about securing permission from the railroad for portions of the trail.

In Aspinwall, where the trail could travel though a railroad access road or portions of Freeport Road, officials are concerned about safety.

“No one is in favor of using Freeport Road as a shared bicycle route because of the safety issue,” Aspinwall Councilman Joe Giuffre said.

For Sharpsburg Borough Manager Jan Barbus, it’s the same concern: “I’m not sure that they can put in a bike lane and have it be a safe lane,” she said of share-the-road options along the busy, narrow streets of Sharpsburg. “The challenge is getting it through and finding common ground with the railroad.”

An official from the railroad has said that there are no plans for the proposed trail to go through railroad property.

According to the final recommendations in the trail feasibility study, two routes through the 17 river towns include the “preferred route” — the ultimate trail route, but not necessarily the realistic path.

The second route identified in the study is the “practical route.”

And the only way to keep the trail aligned closely to the river would be along railroad property.

The preferred route takes the trail through 12 miles of active railroad property. But given the challenge of accessing railroad property for a public throughway, the “practical route” scales back the railroad property portion of the trail to 4 miles.

So the trail meanders away from the riverfront in the “practical route” throughout most of the 17 communities it passes through.

But it’s early in the process for developing the trail. Organizers are working on those issues and will discuss those concerns at Wednesday’s meeting.

A breakdown of the route

Two possible trail routes have been created for most communities — a preferred route that may be more difficult to achieve due to private and railroad property and other obstacles, and a practical route that often utilizes “share the road” agreements with local roads.

Highlights of the possible trail routes include:

• Millvale, Shaler and Etna (1.7 miles): From Millvale Riverfront Park, use existing railroad service road.

• Sharpsburg (1.3 to 1.8 miles): The practical route is for the trail to leave the river and thread through the town’s business district starting at Bridge Street under the 62nd Street Bridge. Trail users can cross back to the river at 19th Street and reach Aspinwall through private property. The report recommends upgrading Freeport Road for trail use.

• O’Hara (at least 0.4-mile): This short segment uses private property along the river under the Highland Park Bridge, but considers a share-the-road alternative.

• Aspinwall (0.4-mile): Use the Aspinwall Marina, then either a railroad service road or along Freeport Road and unspecified neighborhood streets.

• Pittsburgh/O’Hara (2.1 miles): Use existing railroad service road to Pittsburgh’s water treatment plant, through the Chapel Harbor development in O’Hara to Zaenger and Riverfront drives and Papercraft Park Road.

• Blawnox (0.8 – 1 mile): Continue adjacent to Fourth Street and Centre Avenue, cross the railroad tracks and continue north along railroad service road.

• O’Hara (at least 1.8 miles): Practical alignment is along Freeport Road. The preferred alternative is along River Road and through private property and a railroad access road.

• Harmar (at least 3 miles): Locating the trail along railroad property is challenging due to a steep hillside and proximity to Route 28, Freeport Road and the railroad tracks. The practical route would upgrade Freeport Road for trail use and rely on other neighborhood streets.

• Cheswick (0.7- to 0.8-mile): Preferred route along railroad property straight to Springdale Borough. The practical route winds along Blockdale Street, crosses the railroad tracks, then moves through private property to the Rachel Carson Park along South Duquesne Avenue.

• Springdale Borough (1.5 to 1.9 miles): Beginning with the railroad crossing at South Duquesne Avenue, follow Freeport Road and Colfax, Railroad, Keane and Butler streets.

• Springdale Township (1.3 miles): Preferred route is along a railroad service road. The practical route is to use Freeport Road.

• East Deer (2.2 miles to 3.1 miles): Use Freeport Road to the railroad crossing at East Deer Park, then run through private property, including the large, former PPG Industries complex.

• Tarentum/Brackenridge (2.1 miles): Begin through private property then use Grantham Street and West Sixth, Fourth and First avenues to Riverview Memorial Park in Tarentum and Brackenridge Memorial Park, then travel along First Avenue.

• Harrison (4.6 to 5.6 miles): Use River Avenue and Veterans Way (a small road along the river parallel to River Avenue) to Natrona Lock and Dam No. 4 to Federal Street (or from the lock and dam through private property). The practical route would continue along Federal and North Canal streets, Karns Road (or riverfront private property) and Oak Manor Drive, cross private property and railroad property to the Freeport Bridge and Butler-Freeport Community Trail.

• Freeport/Allegheny Township (2.5 miles): After crossing the Freeport Bridge, use River Landing Drive in the River Forest Country Club development to connect to abandoned railroad beds that are being developed into a trail by Allegheny Township.

Additional Information:

Coming up

Who: Friends of the Riverfront

What: Public meeting on proposed recreational trail along Allegheny River from Millvale to Freeport

When: 6 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Harmar Municipal Building, 701 Freeport Road


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