Free Daily Headlines

Community News

Set your text size: A A A

Panel recommends construction money for Ecusta Trail, Clear Creek Greenway

The Ecusta Trail from Hendersonville to Horse Shoe and a new greenway in Hendersonville would receive construction funding if a regional transportation board accepts a committee’s recommendation to award the grants next week.

A construction grant of $5 million would jumpstart construction of the 19-mile rail-to-trail corridor from Hendersonville to Brevard on the old Southern Railroad tracks. The news, which Henderson County Commissioner Bill Lapsley announced Wednesday during a meeting of the county’s Transportation Advisory Committee, comes one year after the state Board of Transportation awarded Henderson County $6.4 million for the purchase of the tracks. And it comes as Conserving Carolina, the nonprofit land conservancy, closes in on the purchase of the rail line from the owner, Kansas-based Watco Companies.
The French Broad MPO, the regional planning authority that distributes state and federal transportation money, invited towns and counties last winter to apply for grants from a total pot of $27 million from the Federal Highway Administration’s Surface Transportation Block Grant Program. The money is available over the next five years. Of 19 application from cities and counties, 13 were recommended for funding by an MPO committee that scored and ranked them.
Recommended funding included the $5 million grant for the first three phases of the Ecusta Trail, from Hendersonville to Horse Shoe, and $1.96 million for the Clear Creek Greenway, a city of Hendersonville project to extend the Oklawaha Greenway from Berkeley Mills Park to Carolina Village and eventually under I-26 to Highland Square Shopping Center (Sam’s Club and Walmart).
Henderson County commissioners and staffers decided they needed to be strategic in applying for the federal highway grant, breaking the rail line corridor into five phases then submitting five separate grant applications.
“We didn’t want to roll the dice, so to speak, on all or nothing,” Lapsley said in an interview.
The segments are:
• Trailhead on Kanuga Road at Busy Bend to Laurel Park.
• Laurel Park to roughly halfway to Horse Shoe, in the Brightwater area.
• Brightwater to Horse Shoe.
• Horse Shoe to Etowah.
• Etowah to the county line.
Although the two legs from Horse Shoe to Blantyre did not score high enough to receive a grant, “they’re on the bubble,” Lapsley said. “All we’ve got to get is for one of the projects to not get funded in Buncombe and, bingo, we’re there. What it means is that over the next five years we’ve got an excellent chance of getting at least three of the five built and possibly a fourth.”
The Horse Shoe-to-Etowah phase is the most expensive leg, at $5.8 million, primarily because it involves repair or replacement of the railroad trestle over the French Broad River.
Lapsley said that the N.C. Board of Transportation grant that the Friends of the Ecusta Trail and Conserving Carolina secured last August was crucial. Watco, a short-line freight company, operates the tracks in Western North Carolina as Blue Ridge Railroad Co.
“The key to them getting this far was the agreement to buy the easement, and that closure I’m told is imminent,” Lapsley said. “It’s critical to have that closure before we appropriate money to do anything.”
John Mitchell, the county’s business and community development director, has been coordinating the county’s efforts with the numerous organizations working on the trail project.
“The staff and the committee responsible for this grant have made the recommendation that it be funded,” he said. “In this business, things of this nature are not completed until they’re voted on. Anything can happen. But it appears we have the opportunity to secure those funds.”
The rail line sale is the critical next step.
“We’ve been supportive in our partnership with Conserving Carolina as they negotiate with Watco,” he said. “We’ve been working very closely with our partner and we understand they’re conducting negotiations and we’re doing our very best to support them on that.”

Clear Creek Greenway ranks high

Hendersonville’s Clear Creek Greenway was the highest ranking project of all six applications from Henderson County, at No. 3.
“I’m so proud of the city staff,” said City Council member Jennifer Hensley. “They executed the grant application, they did a phenomenal job. We got really positive feedback from the MPO on their grant application.”
Hensley, who served on the Henderson County Greenway Master Plan committee, said the city helped its cause by doing all the preliminary work.
“We were not using any of the money for planning and design,” she said. “I think that put us in a lot better position to leverage more grant money. … When I found out about the grant I really kind of pushed the city to apply.”
The first leg of the Clear Creek Greenway would run 4,000 feet from the existing Oklawaha trail to Carolina Village. Cost of that phase was projected in April 2019 at $1.3 million. The 10-foot wide paved path would pass over Mud Creek and follow along Clear Creek to Carolina Village and would include a pedestrian bridge over Mud Creek, benches, emergency blue light stations, additional recreational amenities and a flashing pedestrian crossing signs and high visibility markings where the greenway crosses Clear Creek Road. Carolina Village has pledged $250,000 to the Clear Creek Greenway, a donation that would cover most of the required local match of $320,000.
The construction money, if the MPO approves in on Thursday, would cover the Clear Creek Trail all the way to Lakewood Road near the post office annex, City Manager John Connet said.
Hendersonville officials were aware that the county was seeking money from the same source for the Ecusta Trail, which the City Council strongly supports. If the Clear Creek Greenway were to edge out the Ecusta Trail for funding, the city was poised to pull back.
“If it looked like money was getting low, we would gladly pull our funding and our grant application,” Hensley said. “But it worked out. Everybody looks like they’re winning in this one.”

Many moving parts

Mark Warwick, a former chair of the TDA, applauded the potential for $7 million in greenway construction grants.
“I think it’s incredibly exciting,” he said. “This has been a long time coming and now I think we’re going to see the ball rolling pretty quickly. It’s a very exciting time for Henderson County.”
Chris Burns, a founder of the Friends of Ecusta Trail, said the potential construction grants show that cooperation among the county’s elected boards pays off.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “It’s good that the MPO, Henderson County, Laurel Park and Hendersonville all are coming together to realize the benefit (of the Ecusta Trail) and get it under way as soon as we can.”
But he cautioned that he’s not celebrating yet for two reasons: The full MPO board must vote on the grants next week and negotiations to purchase the tracks for railbanking are pending.
“We still don’t have a finalized deal but it’s getting closer and closer,” he said.
The Ecusta Trail project is pushing ahead through a complicated partnership that involves many moving parts, including Henderson County, Hendersonville, Laurel Park, Conserving Carolina, the Friends of Ecusta Trail and other bicycling and walking trail advocates.
“Conserving Carolina will likely be the rail banking entity — I guess steward is the best word,” Burns said. “They’ll be the steward of the corridor. As sections are built, Conserving Carolina will then likely do leases to either the county or the county and municipalities.”
The Friends of Ecusta Trail at that point “will likely become a true friends group,” he said. “We’ll do volunteer coordination, we’ll do fundraising. We have to raise 20 percent of it as match.”
The Henderson County Tourism Development Authority has appropriated $400,000 for the Ecusta Trail over the past five years through a quarter-cent of the lodging tax. Most of that money has already been spent or is committed for appraisals, surveys and closing costs, Burns said.