New trail master plan ranks proposals by priority

Philadelphia has prioritized the 75 trails proposed within its city limits – a decision that could impact which projects receive state, federal or foundation grant money and city capital dollars.

The priority list is part of the new Philadelphia Trail Master Plan adopted by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission this week. The Trail Master Plan is a joint effort of the PCPC and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, in collaboration with the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities.

Top priority proposals include portions of the Tacony Creek, Frankford Creek, Poquessing Creek, Schuylkill Banks and Central Delaware River trails. Sections of some of those same trails have medium or even low priority, however.

The city currently has more than 200 miles of trails, many of which flow through park lands or watersheds, while some are roadside. According to the master plan, several miles of trails were renovated or completed in the past two years and seven miles are currently under construction. Another 8.5 miles of trail are in design, and 13.2 more miles are in the planning and feasibility stages.

City officials consider bicycle and walking trails an important part of the city’s transportation network, said City Planner Jeannette Brugger, who managed the master plan process. Trails not only help people get from one place to another, but encourage them to exercise and enjoy open space, she told planning commissioners before their vote. Trails are also a form of economic development: People are paid to build them, people who use them may spend money in the area, and, studies have shown trails can help boost property values in an area.

The problem, Brugger said, is that there is neither enough grant money nor city money to fund every proposed trail immediately. The Master Plan establishes four main goals for trails, and provides 28 criteria that have been applied to determine how well each proposal meets those goals. The higher the score, the higher the priority. The map included with this article visually shows trail priority – the darker the purple, the higher the priority. For a complete list, with explanations of rank, go to the Philadelphia2035 website, here, and download the plan by clicking on the “check out the plan” link on the right side of the page. The lists begin on page 18.

After hearing Brugger’s presentation to the planning commission, PCPC Chairman and Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger gave a shout-out to commissioner Joe Syrnick, who is president of Schuylkill River Development Corporation. SRDC is building a trail that will eventually span the length of the river within the city. Currently, construction of a boardwalk portion at South Street is underway. “It’s tremendously exciting,” he said. “I think the quality-of-life jump is tremendous” when a trail is built, Greenberger said. He noted that Philadelphia faces stiff competition for trail-building grants, and indicated this plan and priority list would help make the most of limited resources.

Commissioner Nancy Rogo-Trainer praised the plan for its clear priority ranking system. “Prioritizing is the most difficult part,” she said. This plan not only sets the priorities, but “explains why (a certain trail) is a high priority.”

The goals and criteria consider things such as whether a proposed trail would connect two existing trails, how close it is to neighborhoods, how close it is to heavily used transit stops, and how well the surrounding area is served by trails already.

The trails are divided into five categories, and are ranked within those categories. They are: Watershed Parks, Schuylkill River Trail, Delaware River Trail, Sidepath/Roadway Adjacent, Miscellaneous, and Completed/In Construction. Note that the Delaware River Trail category is not limited to the Central Delaware, but encompasses proposals to the north and south as well.

The first ranking was done by the master plan steering committee – representatives of the planning commission, parks and recreation, the office of transportation and utilities, the water, commerce and streets departments, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation and the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.

The goals and criteria the rankings are based on were established with help from an advisory committee, whose members include representatives of organizations with proposed trails and other stakeholders: The PA Department of Conservation & Natural Resources, the planning divisions of Montgomery, Delaware and Bucks counties and Lower Merion Township, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Phialdelphia, the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority, the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, the Delaware River City Corporation, the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, the Clean Air Council, the East Coast Greenway Alliance, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, The Schuylkill Project, Friends of the Wissahickon and Friends of Cresheim Valley Trail.

The master plan also establishes a Philadelphia Trails Committee, comprised of representatives of the same city agencies on the steering committee. This group, which will meet for the first time later this summer, will from here on out update the trail priority list annually, using the criteria established in the plan.

Non-profits applying for grant money to build trails generally need a letter of support from the city.

The Philadelphia Trail Committee will review these requests at quarterly meetings, determine the priority assigned to that particular project, and determine what the support letter should say. A letter for top priority trail would not only note that level of support, but if there is no non-profit agency behind the trail proposal, city staff time could also be pledged. This is already happening with the Frankford Creek Greenway, which planning and parks and rec have taken on, Brugger said.

The city might offer a lesser amount of assistance, for example, helping to establish a group to guide construction of a trail, for a medium-priority project, Brugger said.

Low priority project letters would likely say something to the effect of, we support this project, but it is not high on our priority list at this time.

The trail committee will also review possible sources of trail money, and let those behind pending projects that fit know it is available.

Entities that wish to build trails may also meet with the committee to inform them about what is planned, and also to seek advice, Brugger said – advice that could help them tweak a plan to better meet city priorities, and get a higher ranking.

The committee meetings will not be open to the public, although the committee will report on its work, she said. Also, while the priority rankings and the criteria are public, each trail’s score is not.

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