If you've ever ridden up Ponca Hill Road on the way to Ft. Calhoun, you know "that" hill. You know, the one that leaves you gasping for air, that makes your thighs burn--the one that makes you wonder, in short, why the @#%* NRD can't move the trail off the road to that nice, flat field that's highly visible off to your right.
If this desperate thought has ever gone through your oxygen-starved brain searching for distractions to keep you from thinking about how you're going to die climbing that hill, you're not the only one. NRD has received a number of concerns along these lines, and I thought it would be worthwhile posting NRD's response to one of them, as it lays out the issues quite thoroughly. NRD doesn't seem to make these decisions lightly or without considerable research into the situation and potential options. It may not make your uphill climb any easier, but at least now you can distract yourself with all the reasons why the trail goes this way. And just think about that downhill!
(Reprinted with permission from NRD)
First – I am the project manager for this trail project and also a biker. I’ve ridden this area a number of times over the years – from as far north as Tekamah, Nebraska (when I lived there over 10 years ago) south to the Old Market and I share your concerns regarding the grade – it IS steep. More about that later.
As you are no doubt aware – this trail segment – from Ponca Road north to the Washington county line – is the District’s final, 1.5 mile segment that will connect an approximately 17 mile hard surface trail from the Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge in Washington County – south to the Omaha Riverfront, the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge and the Old Market. Once you are on the Riverfront – you can cross the pedestrian bridge and ride the Council Bluffs trail system south all the way to Missouri. Whew!
The decisions leading up to the current alignment location were many and varied encompassing nearly 6 years in planning, studies, reports, permits and funding delays. Yes, six years! The ultimate question was: Do we want to build the trail? Once our Board said “yes” (and the decision to build this trail segment was not an easy one) the routing was determined by many factors. First and foremost was the safety of the user whether they were a cyclist, runner, walker, roller-blader, etc. But, many, many other factors were also considered, studied and reviewed.
We did look extensively at other alternatives. We looked at going east to the river’s levy system and locating the trail on top of the levy and heading north on a very slight grade until we eventually curved back west - to the existing Washington County Trail; We studied the possibility of staying at the base of the hill on the east and then again cutting to the west – again intersecting the existing Washington County Trail; We reviewed several options to locate the trail west along Ponca Road for a bit and then cutting north along the valley area and then with a series of switchbacks - head back east, up the hill to the North River Road and then to the Washington County Trail; and finally, the only other reasonable option that would actually get the trail built, albeit steep and with its own issues, was to head up North River Road along the existing right-of way.
The discounted alignments were due to combinations of: existing wetlands, eagles, hunting, seclusion from populace with no clear line of sight (a usage/safety issue), nesting, inordinate amount of tree removal, private landowners concerns, erosion and stability of the rather fragile soils, extreme costs, and likely other issues that I’ve forgotten over the years.
We (the NRD) worked with a variety of other agencies over the past half-decade to obtain the necessary permits, authorization, clearances, etc. to include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding migratory and nesting birds and endangered species issues - potential for endangered species and clearances, and/or stipulations for their presence if found during construction, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers for questions dealing with jurisdictional wetlands and studies to determine their locations and permitting; the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) for mitigating any disturbance of the documented Cabanne Trading post site; the Douglas County Department of Roads; the Nebraska Department of Roads and the Federal Highways Administration. We also have to deal with both OPPD and Qwest with the relocation of their lines.
I’ll admit that this “simple” trail project has had more reviews and agency oversight than any I have ever been involved with in my nearly 30 years at the District.
Following this intensive review/study process, our only real alignment option, if we were to build the trail at all, was to proceed up North River Road. This being said, we really had only two choices remaining…the east or west side of the road. Our Board, after considering these options determined that, even though the cost would be considerably higher for construction, the east side of the North River Road would be at least as safe and the least objectionable from the existing landowner’s perspective.
Yes, trees will have to be removed and there will be disturbance to the area during construction. Overhead clearances for bridge boring machines and sheet pile installation (erosion control, hill stabilization) as well as a needed three foot clearance from edge of trail necessitate the poles to be relocated – a safety issue both for the bridge contractor (six bridges will be needed) as well as the trail user when completed.
I am also a biologist – deeply concerned with encroachments to our native tree and prairie species populations. As somewhat of a concession – and part of the overall trail project, we will ameliorate some of the tree removal damage by planting dozens of replacement trees. There will also be a linear rain garden constructed on the downgrade side along the north half (close to White Deer Lane) with native prairie plants. And, to help with the steep grade – both with the safety concerns you discussed in your e-mail as well as “simple” access - certainly a concern with the ADA requirements - signage will be installed on both ends of the grade. Additionally and more importantly, three ‘turnouts’ will be the installed along the steep grade. These accommodations were designed into the trail project, were extensively reviewed and comply with all of the federal and state ADA requirements. (We are in fact receiving federal/state funding for a portion of the trail cost.)
As I’ve indicated earlier, this was and continues to be a difficult and challenging project. I will let it go at that. But, if you have specific or additional concerns regarding the design, background, construction schedule or other thoughts, please contact me at your convenience. If you’d like, I can also meet with you on-site or at a location of your choosing.
Jim Becic, Environmental Coordinator
Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District
8901 S. 154th Street
Omaha, NE 68138