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Jones Falls Trail Expansion Connects Communities to Green Spaces

SANDY SPARKS ON THE JONES FALLS TRAIL
SANDY SPARKS ON THE JONES FALLS TRAIL
Jaw set, neck stiff, white knuckling the steering wheel while sitting in yet another backup heading south on Interstate-83. A driver looks longingly over to the right, beyond the jersey wall, where the light rail tracks lie nestled amid a lightly wooded backdrop.

She thinks: "Wouldn't it be nice to be cruising downhill on a bike, following the Jones Falls stream downtown, instead of tapping the car's brake pedal every few feet?"
 
One day in the not too distant future, that vision will be a reality.
 
The final stretch of the Jones Falls Trail has been a long time in the making, and it's not finished yet. Most of the project will be completed in 2013. One portion that goes downtown past Harborplace mall will be ready June 1, in time for a city sailing festival.  

The $18 million piecemeal project—conceived by a few committed community advocates more than a decade ago and funded primarily by federal transportation dollars -- is shaping up to be a unique city resource. It will link bikers and hikers to some of the city's most desirable communities and green spaces and offer an alternate means of commuting.
 
"It always seemed obvious that the Jones Falls, the spine of the city, needed a trail," says longtime community advocate Sandy Sparks and former executive director of the Midtown Community Benefits District. She proposed the idea for the trail back in 1999.  
 
The Baltimore City Department of Transportation estimates that the city's bike commuters have increased by 40 percent within the past three years. But sparse cyclist-friendly routes prevent many would-be two-wheel commuters from taking to the city streets during rush hour. The completion of the Jones Fall Trail could change that.
 
The vision

One of Baltimore's most precious natural resources, the Jones Falls watershed encompasses some 40 square miles, starting in Northern Baltimore County and eventually emptying into the Inner Harbor.
 
Its companion trail in the making, the Jones Falls Trail, will extend approximately 12 miles when completed. In parts it hugs the Jones Falls. In other areas it meanders through the watershed area's park space. And, in more heavily populated areas, it will provide users with a dedicated bike and pedestrian lane along Fallsway, as well as President, Pratt and Light Streets.
 
The grassroots vision for the Jones Falls Trail will, within the next few years, fulfill this dual purpose of increasing recreation and commuting options for city residents and visitors. When the final leg of the estimated 12-mile trail is completed, it will connect several city neighborhoods with the Jones Fall stream and 1,500 acres of parkland. [See companion story for details]. 
 
Most trail projects start at one end or another. Less conventionally, this one began in the middle —between Pennsylvania Train Station and Druid Hill Park—and is working its way outward towards either end: Mt. Washington to the north and the Inner Harbor to the South. The intent of the project is to form a more cohesive, accessible route between communities and open spaces. 
 
"When they built I-83, they eliminated access to Druid Hill Park," explains Beth Strommen, director of the Baltimore Office of Sustainability and former Greenway Coordinator for Baltimore City. "The community always felt like they had been cut off from Druid Hill Park and its grand entrance, with beautiful pillars on either side. This was a way for them to reintroduce that entrance, and make that connection back to Druid Hill Park. That's why the trail started in the middle."
 
Linking to the city's best amenities

Nature lovers will find this midsection of the trail rich with city landmarks. There's the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, the Howard P. Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens, the 1.5-mile paved walkway that loops around the Druid Hill reservoir, and the open park's rolling hills. As users head north, they'll link to Cylburn Arboretum—an urban nature preserve with several gardens, trails, a bird museum and a brand new 10,000-square-foot visitor and education center. Then it's on to Mt. Washington's Northwest Park and, eventually, Robert E. Lee Park.
 
But for users craving urban amenities, the trail will connect users to restaurants and shops in Woodberry, Hampden and Mt. Washington. South of Druid Hill Park, users will have access to Penn Station and Mount Vernon attractions the Walters Art Museum, Enoch Pratt Library and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
 
The Inner Harbor portion of the trail is currently under construction with a strict deadline of June 1, 2012. It will be just in time for the city's month-long international sailing celebration.  
 
The promise of a safer commute for cyclists

As it stands now, only the most intrepid commuters venture downtown to work on their bicycles. Ehren Gaag, a senior associate at Baltimore architecture firm Gensler, used to ride his bike from his home just north of the Baltimore City line to his downtown office on a fairly regular basis.
 
"I love the idea of riding in, but even with a helmet I don't feel very safe," says Gaag, who describes jumping up on sidewalks on particularly treacherous city streets to avoid vehicle traffic.
 
Gaag's colleague, Karen Hill, shares a car with her husband and is sometimes forced to rely on her bike for transportation from her Charles Village home to the Pratt Street office. She's open to the possibility of one day exchanging her busy road route for the leg of the Jones Falls Trail that will run between Penn Station to Light Street.
 
"If it's safer and separates cyclists more from traffic, I would definitely take that in," Hill says.
                      
Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore-based freelance writer, covering topics as diverse as parenting and public health. She writes for several local print and web outlets, universities, and medical centers. Her last story for Bmore Media was on wellness school Tai Sophia Institute


PHOTOS:

Sandy Sparks on the Jones Falls Trail

Nathan Young runs along the Jones Falls Trail

A sign near the trailhead at Stieff Silver

Signs along the Jones Falls Trail

Round Falls, a feature along the Jones Falls Trail

All photographs by STEVE RUARK
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