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Paving MKT: Good for government grants, bad for many users

Paving MKT: Good for government grants, bad for many users

“I am wary of Greeks even when they are bringing gifts.” – Laocoon

Substitute “governments” for “Greeks” in this warning from the story of the Trojan horse, and those should be the watchwords for citizens to follow whenever accepting federal government grants—because we know nothing of subsequent conditions they may attach to such largesse.

It should surprise no one that the $22 million federal grant to the city of Columbia designed to encourage alternate modes of transit, including bicycling, comes with some subtle strings attached, leading us to the recent imbroglio about paving the somewhat sacred MKT Trail. Of course there must be the means to measure results, which any donor would be entitled to expect.

If you’re a road cyclist, you probably want the city’s MKT Trail paved. If you’re a mountain biker, runner or walker, you probably don’t. Either way, PedNet was right to ditch the plan to pave the trail and recommend using the funds for something else. Of course, ultimately the decision will be left up to the Columbia City Council.

Born from the debris of the Columbia branch line of historically ill-starred Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, the 20-year-old city trail preceded any serious intention in this country of adapting and integrating abandoned railroad lines into commuter alternatives to the existing network of roads and highways.

The MKT Trail was one of the first of these vanguards designed to preserve and “bank” carefully graded but otherwise abandoned railroad rights-of-way for defense purposes in case subsequent events would require reconstruction and integration into the country’s railway network.

Twenty years ago, the city’s foray into the trail business was regarded as somewhat daring and experimental. Recall that the trail was built in stages and not without considerable controversy along the way. The notion of paving the city’s initial southwestward foray into the woods was drowned out at the time by the greater struggle just to appease and win over many of the adjoining property owners who didn’t want the trail out their way to begin with.

Twenty years later, the forces have been clearly divided between trail users who favor maintaining the status quo versus gift bearers who claim that paving the trail will translate into measurable results over the short term.

Most bicyclists favor paved surfaces because they are smoother, safer and usable under most weather conditions. Paving in this case might appeal to the majority of cyclists, but it introduces conflicts that are simply unacceptable to the present overall application of the trail. Average cycling speeds would go up if the trail were paved, thereby increasing the potential for accidents and other conflicts with pedestrian users. Perhaps less anticipated, paving would also open up a suitable path for skateboarders and in-line skaters who currently don’t ply the trail because the stone surface is rather inhospitable.

The federal government is entitled to results from this demonstration grant. Paving the MKT Trail would be a quick fix easily associated with before-and-after traffic counts. If more people bike to work, that means fewer people will use their fossil-fueled vehicles, or so one would hope. I’m skeptical.

That’s the ulterior motive here: to determine whether spending cash on bicycle-pedestrian paths will ameliorate traffic conditions on the city’s increasingly congested network of streets and highways. There are plenty of other ways to use this grant money, and a good start would be to make the city’s existing principal traffic arteries more hospitable.
Of course there’s nothing glamorous about fixing ruts and potholes or policing the trash on the side of the road, but those remedies would have a positive—if not measurable—effect.

Let’s use some of the money to enhance the ongoing program of placing cycle/pedestrian walk signs at major intersections. Striping and marking should continue, designating additional paths with signs. There are various things employers can do to encourage cycle commuting, and fertile minds can no doubt add to this list. Nothing very startling here, but there are way to augment and measure alternative forms of transit without paving our trails.

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