To say that construction on Buncombe County’s greenway system has proceeded at a snail’s pace does a disservice to snails.
Since Buncombe adopted its 102-mile Greenway and Trails Master Plan in 2012, just half a mile of greenway has actually gone on the ground. Sammy, the winner of the 2019 World Snail Racing Championships in Congham, England, covered a 13-inch course in 2 minutes and 38 seconds. If racing were Sammy’s full-time job, the snail would’ve traveled nearly 75 miles since 2012.
Josh O’Conner, recreation services director for Buncombe County, acknowledges that greenway work has been challenging in recent years. The area’s complex topography, difficulties with piecing together funding sources and budget woes within the N.C. Department of Transportation, he says, have all conspired to keep the vast majority of the county’s plan from making it off the page.
But the county is now participating in a project that O’Conner hopes will bring renewed vigor — and additional funding — to greenways in Buncombe County and across Western North Carolina. As proposed by the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Hellbender Regional Trail would create a web of WNC greenways stretching roughly 150 miles.
From Mars Hill in the north to Rosman in the south, from Black Mountain in the east to Maggie Valley in the west, the system would link the region’s major municipalities through paths devoted to bicyclists and pedestrians. While most of those miles have already been identified on local greenway plans such as Buncombe’s, O’Conner explains, the Hellbender clearly outlines how those local plans could coalesce into a greater whole.
“This is the most excited I’ve seen people about greenways in a really long time,” says O’Conner. “I think it’s advanced the thinking to a new level in terms of showing a much larger picture than what’s previously been shown.”
Around the bend
That raising of consciousness around greenways began several years ago, says Tristan Winkler, director of the French Broad River MPO, when his staff noticed how many area governments were working on similar bike-ped efforts. Those planned trails, such as Buncombe County’s French Broad River Greenway and Lake Julian Greenway, often led to a county’s edges, but local maps didn’t note the many places where the paths linked up across borders.
“We started to see a de facto regional network being planned that no one was really talking about or focusing on,” Winkler recalls, and in 2019, he convened a workgroup to look at those connections. The resulting Hellbender plan stitches together existing networks and identifies a few missing links to outline one continuous trail system throughout the MPO’s jurisdiction: Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties.
Such a backbone of greenways would not only provide arteries of transportation between counties, Winkler says, but also make local trails significantly more useful. “The Hellbender is really more of the vision for the bike-ped interstate. But having an interstate without other surface streets isn’t really a direction you want to go,” he explains. “Those other connections are important to bike-ped users and connect people to destinations across the region.”
Autumn Radcliff, planning director for Henderson County and a member of the MPO workgroup, says her county’s greenway efforts will follow that philosophy. Major corridors such as the north-south Oklawaha Greenway and east-west Ecusta Trail would be prioritized as part of the Hellbender, while “destination greenways” would spur off the network to locations such as Edneyville and the Green River Game Lands.
“Continuing to work with FBRMPO staff on this plan will help Henderson County focus their greenway efforts and gain legitimacy necessary for potential funding sources,” Radcliff notes.
More consistent funding is critical for the success of the Hellbender and other area greenway efforts. At today’s levels of support, Winkler says, a “very optimistic timeline” for finishing all trails identified in the network would be 50 years. “There aren’t a ton of funds lying around for bicycle and pedestrian projects with current policies,” he admits.
WNC has lagged behind other parts of the country on greenway funding, says O’Conner with Buncombe County, due to a dearth of large private donors. Karla Furnari, the county’s greenway planner, notes that the 22-mile Swamp Rabbit Trail in Greenville, S.C., received major support from Prisma Health; she says previous conversations on greenways between the county and Mission Health, the area’s largest private employer, “didn’t work out.”
O’Conner suggests that the Hellbender could help shift the dialogue with area funders and make them more likely to open their pockets. Instead of pitching a greenway segment as “just a 2-mile trail to go and walk on,” he explains, local governments could show how any given path would be part of a system that creates long-distance connectivity for residents and a draw for visitors.
Coordination between governments through the MPO and the Hellbender plan, O’Conner adds, would present a more united front of funding requests. “Funders aren’t getting hit by everybody trying to do a small project, but getting hit once with that same larger-scale vision,” he says.
The Hellbender could also bring additional support from the state. The NCDOT recently launched the Great Trails State Plan, an initiative to link all 100 North Carolina counties through greenways and other bike-ped infrastructure. Winkler says state officials view the Hellbender as having accomplished “a lot of the legwork” for WNC.
“Trail corridors included in the plan will now be of statewide significance, and that will hopefully provide communities with more resources to develop their trail projects,” says Katie Trout, a spokesperson for the NCDOT. “A key component of our plan implementation strategy is to provide assistance for municipalities and regions to develop their local trail networks.”
Miles to go
Whatever the source, the Hellbender will need substantial new money to become a reality. According to the MPO, about 30 miles of the plan’s greenways are already built or potentially funded; roughly 53 miles are being engineered or studied, while the remaining 67 miles exist only as lines on a map.
O’Conner says that Buncombe County’s low-end estimate for constructing paved, 10-foot greenways compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act — a requirement to receive federal funding — is $2 million per mile. Using that figure, constructing the unfunded portion of the Hellbender trails would cost at least $240 million; Winkler says it’s too early to assess additional costs for signage, maps and other infrastructure that would be layered on top of the network.
Nevertheless, Winkler says the MPO is committed to following through with the Hellbender. The group will continue to push for the plan’s greenways as part of its work on other regional transportation projects: Upgrades to Swannanoa River Road, for example, coincide with the path outlined by the city of Asheville for the Swannanoa River Greenway.
“To us, that’s a key connection for the Hellbender, but that’s also a key component to making [Swannanoa River Road] a successful roadway project,” Winkler explains.
The MPO is also stepping up with its own funding decisions. (The planning organization manages roughly $4.5 million annually in federal transportation block grants.) On Aug. 27, the organization’s board voted to allocate more than $5 million over the next five years to Henderson County’s Ecusta Trail, as well as $1 million for Asheville’s North RAD Greenway and $960,000 for the Riverwalk Greenway in Black Mountain.
But sustained progress on the Hellbender, emphasizes O’Conner, will require ongoing community support, especially as local governments reassess their priorities in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. “People need to continue communicating their desires for greenways, or any recreational asset that they want, to their elected officials,” he says. “That allows us to confirm as a department that this is the direction the taxpayers want that money spent.”