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City wants Ecusta Trail on state DOT plan

Formally requesting that regional planners add the first leg of the Ecusta Trail to the state’s long-range transportation plan, the Hendersonville City Council committed to a “financial contribution” that is “within reason.”

Although the resolution was bureaucratic in nature, narrow in scope and equivocal in the council's commitment to spending money, it was significant in that the council became the first elected body to officially ask transportation planners to add the project to long-range plans. If it’s not on the plan, local supporters can’t even begin to ask for money.

“The big piece of this is it gets it on the DOT radar,” said Chris Burns, a founding member and past president of the Friends of Ecusta Trail. “Keep in mind that just because the city did this doesn’t mean it’s in the plan.”
Adding a new project can take years and many layers of review. And in the end it all comes down to money.
When Henderson County Chamber of Commerce members traveled to Raleigh, they met with Lauren Blackburn, director of the DOT’s Division of Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation.
“The one thing they did tell us was they could fund up to 80 percent of construction and they would want a 20 percent local match but they don’t care if it comes from private dollars, grants or whatever. For instance, the appropriation that the TDA made would count as local match.”

‘Pretty sure it’s going to happen’

Hendersonville’s mayor pro tem, Ron Stephens, said he hopes other elected boards follow the city’s lead.
“I support that trail 110 percent,” he said. “I think it would be a big plus for Hendersonville and this area because they’ve proven that other places where they’ve opened up these trails.”
Whether the rail line’s owner, Watco, will sell the line is the biggest unknown to reaching the starting line. Stephens said he sees no reason why the company would resist railbanking the line for a greenway. The greenway builder would buy the 19-mile corridor at market value, an amount Burns projects at $3 million to $3.7 million.
“I think it’s very important” to get the support of both the Henderson County and Transylvania County support, Stephens said. “I’m hoping that Transylvania will come along. The odds of that being used for a railroad again I’m told is pretty nil since we all know that that probably won’t happen. If an industry is going to need a railroad they’re going to go where a railroad is now. It would be almost impossible to build an industry big enough to pay the railroad to rebuild that track.
“We’re pretty sure that this (trail) will happen. These things cause a very positive impact for recreational purposes. It creates a lot of businesses, which pay a lot in local taxes. I think it’s a big plus for Hendersonville and Henderson County and Brevard and Transylvania County.”
Trail supporters have said that Gov. Pat McCrory wants to make sure greenways are a part of the state’s next transportation improvement schedule.
“Obviously there’s no firm commitment but the indication is that they are very interested in doing this,” Stephens said of the DOT. “The implication is that they are getting pressure from the governor and I don’t know who else to participate in these programs with some of the state highway money and what they want is to know how strong we would support it and would we participate.”
Tristan Winkler, a transportation planner with the Land of Sky Regional Planning Council, said projects need local support in order to advance.
“We ask our local government boards to pass a resolution of support just to show that there is local support for this project,” he said. “It’s not just one person’s dream. … It’s saying that when funding’s available, this board will have an interest in going after it.”
City Manager John Connet was cautious about the city funding.
“It just becomes part of the overall process to move up, through privatization, through funding to see if we can obtain it,” he said. “Obviously nothing could happen until a decision was made by Watco if it was going to be made available for trail development.”
Plans shown in a 2012 planning study and economic impact analysis shows trailhead 1 on city property neat the city Operations Center.
The city’s commitment to funding includes that important “within reason” caveat.
“The city council can determine if that contribution is reasonable and appropriate and whether they have the funding to do it,” Connet said. “The total value of Phase 1 was about $2,125,000 but there’s no commitment that we would pay 50 percent of that, 10 percent of that, whatever. It just speaks for the fact that in order to move it up in the ranking, the city might have to participate at some level.”

Trail group contacts property owners

The Friends of Ecusta Trail is moving ahead on other fronts, too.
Blackburn, the Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation chief, has committed to visit Oct. 13-14.
“We’re setting up meetings. She’s going to speak at Rotary,” Burns said. “We’re going to set up a dinner meeting, invite commissioners, council members, basically setting her up so she can have conversations with all these folks that have an interest.”
The trail organization sent out a mailing last week to around 350 property owners adjacent to rail line in Henderson and Transylvania counties.
“It gave them an update on latest information from Watco,” Burns said. “It told them a little more about railbanking. And I’m starting to get calls and letters and believe it or not donations and letters of support. Four property owners have gone on our website and signed the statement of support. I did have one property owner send me a letter saying he was not interested.”