Stepping Up- Fayette County is Making Strides Toward being a Fit City

By Vince Tweddell, Business Lexington,

When Zina Merkin was living in Cambridge, Mass., a blizzard wiped out the roadways, leaving them unpassable for automobiles. Yet, people still had to get to and fro. A funny thing happened: people walked. That’s the first time Merkin––now a Lexington resident who volunteers her time to help with the planning, fundraising, and education for the non-profit Town Branch Trail project––recalls feeling a pull to create a community of walkers.

She said the side effects of the storm were great because “everyone had to walk––I ran into people I hadn’t seen in years.”

While walking or biking across town without the burden of dealing with motorists might seem like a dream for many Lexington health enthusiasts, local officials say it could happen in the future. And although it won’t be a complete reality in 2006, there are many projects on tap that are pushing that dream forward.

Keith Lovan, chair of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government (LFUCG) Greenway Coordinating Committee, lists five trail projects that are scheduled for construction this year. All of them will be paved, 10- or 12-feet wide, and appropriate for runners, walkers, parents with strollers, wheelchairs, bicyclists, and in-line skaters. These trails include:

• West Hickman Trail, a trail on the south end near Veterans Park that will total 1 1/2 miles.

• Brighton East Rail to Trail project on the east end, which will be the first rail to trail project in Fayette County. It will begin on an abandoned railroad track that runs all the way to Ashland, Ky., said Lovan. The goal is to eventually link the two cities with this multipurpose trail. This year just the first two miles of the trail are scheduled for construction.

• South Elkhorn Trail off of Nicholasville Road will eventually connect Waveland State Historic Site and Shillito Park. The first half-mile will be built this year.

• Liberty Park Trail is located off Liberty Road and will be about one mile long.

• Town Branch Trail will eventually total eight miles, connecting Masterson Station Park in west Lexington through downtown to Thoroughbred Park. One half-mile is in place, with 1 1/2 additional miles scheduled for construction this year.

Lovan said about $3 million worth of projects will be funded this year (with the work to be done by the LFUCG) mostly by federal funds with $200,000 to $300,000 coming from local matches.

Town Branch Trail is a perfect example of what could be for multi-purpose paths in Lexington, with plans to snake through residential, industrial, and downtown areas. Although only the first half-mile of the 10-foot wide multi-purpose trail has been completed, that hasn’t stopped residents of McConnell’s Trace Neighborhood, which borders the trail, from indulging in it.

“Every day I see people on it from seven in the morning until dark,” said Robert Russell-Tutty, president of the McConnell’s Trace Neighborhood Association. “Matter of fact, I use it myself.”

Russell-Tutty said residents are looking forward to when the trail will connect to downtown.

According to Merkin, when the Town Branch Trail is complete, it will wind about eight miles along the Town Branch of the Elkhorn Creek through “disinvested” or neglected areas, neighborhoods, underutilized industrial areas, and on through the hotel and convention area.

“Visitors can go right out of their hotel and get in their morning jog before the conference starts,” Merkin said.

This trail, she hopes, will offer alternative transportation, recreation, and exercise, while leading to further environmental cleanup. Also, it provides a firsthand view of the history of Lexington, which was founded along Town Branch.

“If the trail comes near the creek it will bring it into people’s awareness, and they will encourage cleaning it up,” said Merkin. “The creek is not in great shape. It is on the state’s list of impaired waterways. In many places it looks very pretty, and in many places you can see trash.”

Not all those who get from point A to point B in a non-motorized fashion prefer hoofing it. For bicycling enthusiasts there are additional plans on the horizon in 2006.

One of the first things bicyclists notice are bike lanes, and in 2006, Mayor Teresa Isaac has set aside $115,000 for re-striping bike lanes, according to Kenzie Gleason, coordinator of the LFUCG Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee. Although $115,000 may seem like a large amount, Gleason estimates it will fund maybe five miles.

Gleason also said funding has been secured to hire a consultant who will help determine what citizens want improved in regards to biking and walking needs on the short-, mid-, and long-range plans for alternative transportation.

“It’s a plan to determine how we’ll move forward, ” she said. “We don’t want to tell the population, we need people to tell us what their priorities are.”

Bicycle enthusiasts also have the 3rd Annual Bike Lexington to look forward to on May 20, Gleason said. She hopes the participation at the bicycling race and information day will one day rival some of the runs held in Lexington.

Beyond biking, walking, and running, Lexington offers a number of free or affordable fitness options. By utilizing the city’s community centers, residents can participate in aerobics classes, basketball, karate, weightlifting, and other classes, said Diane Bonfert, recreation superintendent for LFUCG Parks and Recreation. The largest of these with the most equipment is Dunbar Community Center on North Upper Street. Others include Carver, Castlewood, Charles Young, and Kenwick community centers. Also, Winburn Middle School has equipment and is open to the public. For example, the fitness room at Dunbar is open each weeknight from 5 to 9 p.m. In addition, for a fee per team, the Parks Department also offers volleyball and softball leagues.

Bonfert said her department has just formed a committee to determine what the Parks and Recreation department can do to help Lexingtonians to become more physically fit. She said the committee is in the beginning stages and will be further refined in the next month or so.

In the March 17, 2005, issue of Prevention Magazine, Lexington was ranked as the eighth-best walking city in America for cities with populations between 200,000 and 500,000. (Louisville ranked 16th on that same list.) But according to the Prevention Web site, Lexington received this ranking not based on the number of recreation walkers, hikers, or people who commute by walking, but by the number of baby stroller owners and the percentage of residents who participate in sports at least once a week.

Officials concede there is much more work to do for walking paths and trails, as well as bicycling paths.

“Bike trails and walking paths are included in almost all development plans,” said Bruce Edwards, Isaac’s press secretary. Edwards said Isaac always has the health of Lexington’s residents in mind, and when asked if Lexington is a healthy city, responded, “Absolutely.”

To a degree, Lovan agrees. “The government is doing quite a bit (for healthiness in Lexington),” he said. “You should see evidence this year.”

But Lovan also concedes there are not as many pedestrians or biking commuters as officials would like. He said by census, less than one percent of residents commute by walking or bicycling, and the goal is between five and 10 percent.

“So we’ve got a long way to go.”

Merkin, a research assistant in landscape architecture at the University of Kentucky, estimates that Lexington is some 20 years behind the curve when compared to other cities’ bicycling and walking paths and green spaces. She listed Indianapolis and Chattanooga as model cities.

“It’s hard to get around (in Lexington) on alternative transportation safely,” she said.

Additionally, Gleason said children are walking less to school. In the past, she said upward of 60 to 70 percent of school children got to school by biking and walking. Now it’s closer to 15 percent, she said. But LFUCG has secured a grant called Safe Route to School which will be used to identify barriers––such as dangerous crossings or missing sidewalks––that keep kids from walking or biking to school.

The thing that may be keeping more Lexingtonians from biking or walking is a level of comfort.

“My feeling is that a lot of people want to do it, but they don’t feel it’s safe yet,” Lovan said. “I think Lexingtonians are very interested in it, but it takes time to develop.”

But this year the government will inch closer to an interconnected development linking parks and greenspaces, said Lovan. “If we get all our trails (scheduled for construction) completed, yes, we’re looking at our most ambitious year yet.

“Hopefully, it will be a successful year this year, and will bring more enthusiasm and funding so that we can grow more next year.”

It’s the same theme for the Town Branch Trail Project.

“We’re not going to give up until it’s (Town Branch Trail) done,” Merkin said. “It will be a great asset to our city.”